Wednesday, February 08, 2012


Back in Doha, I find that I keep running into people from my previous life in Qatar. Surprisingly, I get recognised in the street and in shops by apparent strangers. Perhaps the weirdest example was when I walked into a car accessories shop where I’d not been for about eight years, and the proprietor recognised me, instantly remembering that I used to be involved with the Doha Players. It wasn’t as if he’d used any clues either. For the first time, I’d rolled up at the shop on a motorbike rather than in a Nissan Patrol, and the shopkeeper recognised me despite my bike gear and helmet.

A total stranger recognised me in the Kawasaki showroom. He correctly identified me as the Goat who’d bought the aforementioned Nissan Patrol off him in 1999.

And then last Saturday it happened again.

I was hailed by a complete stranger in the Harley-Davidson shop in Wakrah, who had instantly recognised me as the scuba diver who bought loads of stuff from his shop between 1996 and 2002. (I’d only dropped in, on my way back from taking Rio for a dance across the sand, to see if they had any motorbike boots that I might like; I’m not about to spend QAR97,000 on a Fat Boy.) Actually, the last time I saw him wasn’t 2002; I ran into him on a flight back from the Philippines in early 2006. Nevertheless, he instantly recognised me out of context after six years.

Is this uncanny ability to recognise people by face alone a normal skill possessed by almost everyone on the planet, or a special ability possessed only by politicians, policemen and proprietors in the retail trade? I can’t do it at all. I have an atrocious memory for faces, or so it seems. I can remember other stuff in immense detail, such as the above flight from the Philippines where Beloved Wife and Goat paid for Business Class, the in-flight entertainment didn’t work in our seats, the food was inedible, the Doha to Dubai flight was delayed and we were bumped, and I totally failed to recognise Samir who was on the same flight.

So I was fascinated to learn that there’s actually a name for it. Prosopagnosia (from the Classical Greek πρόσωπον and αγνωσία, meaning “face” and “non-knowledge”) is the inability to see faces. If I have this, it’s very mild because I don’t see a blank where a face should be, and a possibly more likely condition is the related neuropsychological deficit prosopamnesia, in which the sufferer sees faces OK but can’t remember them.

I’ve always had it. A great terror at school was being handed a pile of exercise books by the teacher to distribute around the class. Two years in the same class of over thirty teenagers, and I couldn’t hand the books to the correct people. Much hilarity and ridicule always followed. Teenagers are merciless.

Similarly television and films. I seldom find myself thinking that Kunta Kinte and Geordi LaForge are the same person. I completely failed to recognise Patrick Stewart in I, CLAVDIVS, because he was wearing a wig, and drama with large casts I find immensely confusing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? I don’t have the first idea what’s going on.

I deal with it by using clues that aren’t face-related. On a desert drive, I use the car as the identifier: Prasad is in that white Land Cruiser with two spare wheels on the roof. At the dinner dance, Steve is the one in the loudest waistcoat. In the office, I depend on people being in their allocated cubicles, until I can sneak a look at their ID cards. Please don’t be surprised if I don’t recognise you if you change your hairstyle, grow a beard, switch from glasses to contacts, or have your wonky teeth fixed.

Trouble is, being recognised is such an important social ability. According to a news article I was reading on the subject, people generally expect to be recognised in about 0.2 seconds, and if they’re not they feel insulted and I feel acutely embarrassed. So I cheat, pretending to know who I’m talking to until they let slip some clue: that they were in such-and-such a play, or they have a daughter who plays the violin, or they bought a boat off my friend.

And please, don’t ever ask me to pick a villain out of a line-up or a page of mug shots.



Mme Cyn said...

I feel your pain. I remember faces -- I can't remember names. I also use visual cues to hang names on, but the binat in black that I teach don't give me many of those. And I know that they are offended that I can't remember their names. So I call them Habibti, and if they insist , I try "Fatima". It works sometimes.

nzm said...

A photographer friend of mine had a great method to get around not remembering people's names.

He'd ask them, "What's your name?", and then when they told him, he'd say, "No, not your first name - I already know that. I meant your surname." ;.)

Grumpy Goat said...

Incredibly, it's just happened to me yet again. I bought tyres from a now-demolished shop way back in 1997.

Today, I walk into a tyre shop and the proprietor immediately remembers me and the car I used to have.

Mr Omar V.V. The name on his business card I remember, but how did he remember me after 15 years?

Martín said...

so you were in a HD shop, uh? NOT-NICE... ;)

Anonymous said...

hey mr goat
I'm a fellow sufferer, although until about five years ago I always assumed it was just me being a doofus by not remembering faces. then I did the harvard test -- -- and it showed I had a mild version of it.
I'm also a writer for The National in Abu Dhabi and am working on a feature about it. Did you want to contribute?
You can contact me on jhenzell (at) thenational (dot) ae
hope to hear from you.
john henzell


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