I’ve just returned from a week in Qatar, which is certainly the most exotic place I have ever visited and also one of the most fascinating. This is a place of contrasts: the vast, stark, dusty grey emptiness of the desert butts up against glossy new buildings from cutting-edge architects. Qatari men wearing traditional white robes and headdresses drive around in oil-guzzling white Toyota Land Cruisers. The desert is all around and yet Doha nestles at the edge of the Persian Gulf, mirrored in its waters.
Traditional wooden dhows, beautifully crafted, huddle along the corniche opposite the crescent sweep of glittering skyscrapers which make up the West Bay area (home to most of Doha’s expat community). The heat, even at midnight, is as thick and damp as a moist cloth. The sea sparkles under a dark blue sky, but the grey dunes of Arabia are only a short drive away. It’s a remarkable place. Even now, despite the dhows and the Islamic Museum and the souq, I feel that I know very little about Qatar’s particular history and heritage. History is less important there than the present: the sheer, energetic ‘now’: I effectively saw a city rising out of the desert before my eyes.
All the energies of the Emir and his government are directed towards the World Cup in 2022. By then, they mean Doha to be a destination in its own right. At the moment, there’s still a little way to go; but they’re certainly putting everything into it. The city is changing on a yearly basis. I spoke to business people who had visited Doha ten years ago and found it radically different now. The great highways that lead towards the city outskirts are flanked with a series of buildings all going up at once. The Qataris have simply decided that Doha will have several campuses for international universities; an education foundation with a science park; nineteen museums; and countless office buildings; and it’s all underway. Astounding.
Only two of the museums are already open: the stunning Islamic Museum on the corniche, and the Museum of Modern Arab Art, a little out from the city centre, where I wasn’t able to go. The National Museum, which will occupy a vast plot just off the corniche, has been designed but the land is only just being cleared. The Natural History Museum has had its director appointed but building hasn’t even started yet. No one, including the chief curator, is even sure where the Photography and Media Museum will be located. I heard that Qatar even has its own answer to Dubai’s Palm, in the Pearl, a man-made series of islands outside Doha where there are luxury hotels and shopping malls. I was told about another mall called Villaggio, where a Venetian canal has been created inside, complete with gondolas. If there had been time, I should have been interested to see these places, although to be honest I find that kind of glossy artificiality completely soulless.
I did however enjoy seeing the architecture of the new buildings that were being built around the city. The West Bay’s skyscrapers bulge and cinch and even ripple, looking rather like Canary Wharf might look if it had been reimagined by a 1950s’ comic book artist. The Qatar National Convention Centre is propped up at the front by two enormous tree-trunks (see below), whose spreading branches frame the new addition of a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture in the entrance hall. The sheer imagination of the design is inviting. If Tate Modern looked like this, I’d go there a lot more often!
I was also very interested in finding out more about Qatar and Arabia more generally. My companions had laughed at me, on discovering that I’d watched Lawrence of Arabia the night before I flew out, as a way of getting in the mood. It’s not about the same part of the Arabian peninsula, but why not? Everywhere I went in Doha, I longed to know more about the domestic architecture; the dynamics of family life where a man might have as many wives as he can support; and the way people socialised. To my surprise, I realised that Qatari culture (like others in the Gulf, I suppose) is very insular. I’d naively imagined that socialising would be external (as it is in the Mediterranean), but instead, because of the extreme heat, it’s a very internal world. Social interaction is enclosed in the home or in the majlis (a social space designated for men to relax with their friends; women are forbidden). The majlis can be a room in the home, a separate small building in the grounds, or a public room, a bit like a cafe; we spotted one at the souq.
Women, needless to say, appear not to have the same spaces for socialisation. From what I could gather, a woman’s place is very much in the home. An American gentleman I sat next to at dinner one night told me that, despite having worked at his company in Qatar for four years, he had never been – and never would be – invited to his colleagues’ homes. He would never meet their wives. When socialising was done outside the office, it was done in restaurants; in hotels. This all fascinated me; I was completely new to this kind of culture, as since the age of fourteen I hadn’t made it beyond the borders of Europe. I still want to know more. If anyone can recommend engaging books about Middle Eastern culture or customs, or the lives of women, I’d love to know. I saw very little evidence of Qatari life myself, although there was one peculiar incident I witnessed. On Thursday, ahead of the Qatari weekend, a gentleman and his four wives moved into the suite at the end of my hotel corridor. Once, when I came out of my room, I saw one of the wives kneeling in the corridor, facing the closed door of the suite. Someone opened the door, looked out at her and then shut the door again. She remained kneeling. It was only when one of my companions arrived – a man – that she glanced round and someone opened the door to let her back in. What had she done? Was she a junior wife, being punished for some misdeed? Who knows…
Most of our experiences were of a more touristy kind. Like all good tourists, we went to the souq. The main souq in Doha is Souq Waqif, which is either the oldest souq in the city or built rather recently to look old, depending on who you listen to. It is the only part of Doha, that I saw, which doesn’t look like a modern city. There are tiny alleys lined with clothes shops, and quite a lot of souvenir stalls too; but the most astonishing part was the pet souq. I don’t want to think too hard about the animal care angle of it, but a whole street and a square were crammed with pet stalls, offering puppies, kittens, rabbits, African grey parrots, and baby chicks which were disconcertingly dyed green, purple, pink and blue and well as their natural yellow. Elsewhere in the souq there are plenty of restaurants and we ate there almost every night . Rather than eat at the hotel (an identikit Moevenpick), where we could have been anywhere in the world, it was much better to wander in the heat of the evening among the lanes and courtyards, through clouds of shisha smoke, and to sit in cool air-conditioned rooms drinking fruit juices and eating kebabs. We made the mistake of sitting outside on a terrace one evening and by the end of the meal we were all so hot and flustered that we jumped in the pool as soon as we got back to the hotel. (It was 31 degrees when we arrived at Doha Airport at midnight; during the day it was usually about 41 degrees.)
Some further things to note: I walked back from the souk to the hotel one night with only another girl for company and we didn’t feel at all unsafe. As we were the only eccentrics walking rather than driving, we didn’t meet a soul. As for what to wear, we were all very careful and covered up very conservatively. To be respectful you shouldn’t bare your shoulders, cleavage, elbows or knees, but if the worst comes to the worst you don’t have to worry too much about causing offence. We saw some strappy minidresses on tourists in the souq and none of the Qataris seemed particularly bothered by it; but of course it all depends on the image you want to project.
I look forward to watching Doha develop more in the future, and to finding out more about this intriguing culture. Of course I acknowledge that there are elements of Qatari life which, particularly as a woman, I feel have room for improvement. But who am I to visit a country for a week and to get on my high horse about it? My feelings on my return to London were predominantly positive. I was amazed by the pace of building, and impressed by the elegant buildings and the sheer scale of vision. It was a treat to visit a country where the Emir’s Guards patrol the parliament building on camels in the morning and on beautiful white Arab horses in the evenings. It was moving to stand outside in the thick, humid air and to hear the call to prayer floating across the city from the minarets. And, as someone who loves art, it was wonderful to explore the Islamic Museum’s cool, well-ordered halls and to admire their treasures, spanning more than a thousand years of Islamic history, and including bronze fountainheads, Iznik tiles, intricate miniatures, stunning jewels and more astrolabes than I’ve ever seen in one place before.
Perhaps one day, when more of the nineteen museums are completed, I shall have the chance to go back and learn a little more about this window into another world. I might even manage to learn a few more words of Arabic. Insha’Allah…