I'd already been to the Gulf a handful of times - but only for a few hours each time on a stopover to Australia or Southeast Asia, never leaving the airport. Since I'm a naturally curious guy, I couldn't let that slide. Hence I booked a three-day stopover in Doha before my onwards flight to Shanghai. I really needed to know what these small, rich countries are all about.
Qatar has become somewhat of a regional global player, or at least, that's how it sees itself. In 2006, it hosted the Asian Games, in 2011 the Arab Games. Last year the FIFA shocked the world when they announced that Qatar will host the football World Cup in 2022. On the political side, Qatar has become synonymous with the TV-channel Al-Jazeera, "the world's best known - and most influential - source of news from the Middle East", according to Robert Fisk, and the only television station in the Middle East that doesn't broadcast the views of its government and manages to circumvent censorship. For its uncomfortable reporting, most Middle Eastern countries - as well as Israel and the US - hate its guts. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, Qatar quietly
sent hundreds of troops and military advisers to support Libyan rebels. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has been very vocal in his bid to send Arab troops to Syria to stop the government from killing its own people.
My host Tracy picks me up from the airport in Doha. She's a Canadian nurse with 12 years' experience working in different Middle Eastern countries. She has lived in Qatar for almost three years now. We drive to Souq Waqif in the centre of Doha to have dinner at a small Yemeni restaurant. A friendly waiter greets us and directs us to one of the booths sectioned off by ornamented bamboo walls, where we sit on the floor, leaning on Arab cushions. I ask Tracy about her time in the Middle East and the differences between the small Gulf states.
"Well, there are a lot of differences, definitely. For me as a blonde Western woman I get treated differently in each of the countries. Kuwait wasn't so great in that respect. The men there are very aggressive. In Abu Dhabi as well, they would just blatantly stare at me, which hasn't happened in Qatar. The
men lower their gaze when their eyes meet mine, out of respect. In general, the people here are very conservative and reserved, more quiet. Out of all the countries in the Middle East, Qatar is the most likely to 'make it' and be around for a while. They are very smart with their money, although they spend crazy amounts on construction and irrigation projects, but it's all a little more sustainable than in the Emirates."
The waiter arrives with our food. We get vegetables in a spicy sauce, a big silver plate full of rice, a mixed salad on the side, little bowls with chili sauce (not unlike the Latin American ají) and a gigantic flaky bread with black sesame seeds in a woven basket. The dishes are put on a big plastic sheet on the floor. The food is delicious, but way too much. We shouldn't have ordered the rice, the tractor wheel-sized bread would have been more than enough. Tracy talks about the problems of migrant workers:
"The Filipinas have it the worst. They get jobs as maids, and first thing their employers usually do is take away their passports. They keep them under lock inside
the house, and they make them work 16 hours a day. Sometimes the husbands rape them and as a result, the jealous wives beat them. In Saudi Arabia, if they become pregnant, they go to prison or get executed. They are, not the men who rape them! The embassy doesn't do anything, they don't help them at all. They probably get a stack of money to look the other way. Same with the Indian, Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Malaysian embassies. They don't give a shit about their citizens in the Gulf region. During my time here, many Filipinas were brought in who jumped out of the window of tall buildings, because they couldn't take it anymore. They don't know what else to do. It's absolutely horrible to see these things."
-"But expats have maids as well, right? They treat them better, don't they?"
"Not all of them. Sometimes it is the same. Many expats are from a middle-class background, and they think Dubai is the promised land, where they will get rich in a jiffy. Most of them really hate Arabs, they're only there for the money. The wives usually don't work, all they do is go out and
get their hair and their nails done, do yoga or pilates, and spend the rest of the day in fancy cafés bitching about the place to other expat wives. And they let the maids take care of the kids, if they have any. Can you imagine? They don't work, but let someone else bring up their kids? I had three kids and raised them myself AND worked a job on the side. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Tracy lives in a relatively fancy apartment in a high-rise condominium on West Bay, in close proximity to Doha's ever-evolving skyline. A Persian cat, which has been shaved to look like a lion for some reason, greets our arrival.
The next morning, I go out for a stroll along the Corniche, a waterfront promenade running along Doha Bay for several kilometres. As I take a picture of the Musem of Islamic Arts, an old Arab man, wearing the traditional Arab thobe and headscarf, comes up to me and asks me if I'm taking pictures. Immediately I start getting suspicious and nervous, thinking of the dignified-looking, mustachioed man as some sort of secret police
agent who has been following me around, keeping track of the pictures I've been taking, and intending on interrogating me.
"Um, yes. Just...of the Museum of Islamic Arts there." I reply hesitantly.
-"Ah, yes, it is very nice museum. You should go and visit."
"Yeah, I was just about to..."
-"Where are you from?"
He proceeds to ask me when I arrived in Qatar, how long I plan to stay, where I stay, how I like it, etc., all of which only confirm my suspicions. I answer all of his questions as truthfully as can be, to not get any in any deeper shit. I can see that after he asks the questions, he doesn't really care for the answers I produce, but instead gets this weird, hard look in his eyes. He points to a nearby bench.
-"Come. We sit."
I'm expecting him to tell me the reason for him asking me all those questions. He's gonna tell me I was seen taking pictures of things I shouldn't take pictures of, and that he's gonna be leading me to a black car that's parked around the corner to take
me to their headquarters for interrogation. I better not make a scene, he's gonna say with a threatening look in his eyes.
-"What are your plans for today? I have a car, I can take you around and show you the country." he says instead.
"Uh, no thank you very much, I already have an appointment with a friend."
All of a sudden I can feel his fingers sliding a bit too close to my right butt cheek. I freeze.
-"Maybe tomorrow? I can show you the desert, the dunes..."
His fingers are getting closer, touching my backside. I jump up.
"Ok, gotta go now, it was nice meeting you, have a good day, bye!" I shake his hairy hand and powerwalk away towards the entrance of the museum, feeling dirty and raped. Why the fuck did I shake his hand? Oh, thank you very much, sir, for fondling my ass, it was a pleasure, sir, we should do this again some time, sir. As I turn around the next corner, I take a glimpse over my shoulder and see him talking to another foreigner. I quickly enter the museum.
The Museum of Islamic Arts is considered to be one of the best in the Arab world, and it does live up to its reputation. Some of its best artifacts are from Iran and Central Asia, including Afghanistan. After I take a picture from the 2nd floor of the lounge area underneath, a guard armed Spielberg-Lucas-style with a walkie-talkie comes up to me:
"Excuse me, sir, you take picture?"
-"Yes...just of the lounge area."
"Can I see picture?"
I show him the picture. He looks at it closely for a few seconds.
"You cannot take pictures like this."
-"Why? I'm not sure I know what you're talking about?"
"It's because of the *insert two Arabic words*."
He points at two black dots in the upper left corner of the picture. I check it out and zoom in on them, and they turn out two be two veiled women.
-"Ah, ok. I wasn't really taking a picture of them, you know..."
"You cannot take pictures of the *insert two Arabic words*."
-"Alright, alright. Should I delete the picture?"
the picture and show him the camera.
"Thank you very much for your cooperation, sir." He seems to be a bit embarrassed for the whole hubbub. "Where are you from, sir?"
"Ah, very nice. You like Qatar? How long you stay?"
"That's good, I'm happy. Enjoy the museum, but please don't take pictures of the..."
-"Nooo, don't worry, I won't take pictures of the khrum khram!"
I walk around Souq Waqif, a pleasant, but otherwise remarkably unremarkable Middle Eastern market. Maybe it's because it's too clean and faux-ancient, too 'disneyfied', as Tracy called it. Apparently it used to be an ancient market, but the government decided to bulldoze it in order to build a massive, modern shopping mall. The Qataris weren't happy and nobody went there. So they tore down the mall and rebuilt the Souq, complete with ultra-modern cafés and franchised eateries to take the last bit of character out of the equation before it even had the chance to develop. Still, there are all the usual little souvenir and trinket stalls, spice and sweet shops, tea houses and a section with
animals in cages too small for them. The most striking of those unfortunate critters are coloured chicks, poor little things that were dyed blue, green, pink and red. Beats me what the purpose of this cruelty is.
Tracy later asks me if it were possible for me to stay with a friend of hers for the night, as she has some 'boyfriend troubles' that she has to sort out. I'm a bit weirded out, but agree, so she drives me to her friend Nancy, an English teacher who is so busy with work that I hardly get to talk to her, but nice enough to provide me with a place to lay my head.
The following morning I eat a nice brunch in a small eatery serving Middle Eastern food the way it should be - simple, no-frills, cheap and tasty. I eat a delicious hummus with Lebanese-style flatbread (unfortunately no pita), a few good falafel balls and hot chips, which I ignore.
I spend most of the day wandering through the dusty streets of Doha, looking for the Qatar Photography Museum that my stolen LP from 2005 said would be
finished 'presumably towards the end of 2007' and the Qatar National Library, due for completion in 2007 as well. I don't encounter them in the spots on the map where they are supposed to be, and after a while I realize I'm the only one who's walking around. The footpaths are massive, but everybody uses their air-conditioned cars to get around. No wonder, the fine dust amassed in the air is too much to handle. It lays itself on your skin and cakes there, turning it a hearty brownish colour. It finds its way into your ears and into your nose, clogging your sinuses and making them sensitive. After a while of walking, the dust will be in your mouth and on your teeth. Turns out the museums apparently don't exist, but don't ask me why.
Out of frustration and to admit defeat, I chill out for a couple of hours in one of the tea houses in the Souq, enjoying Moroccan mint tea, a rare treat.
As Nancy is too busy to spend time with me, I meet up with Tracy for dinner. We go to an Indian restaurant and order way too much food. Masala dosa,
which I haven't had since Malaysia, naan and poori, curries, daals and more. And mango lassis, the real shit, not what you get at Starbucks, assuming Starbucks now serves mango lassis. Tracy admits her 'boyfriend troubles' were caused by the fact that she hosted me. Turns out her bf is Egyptian, and even though he's not an ultra-conservative Muslim, he still resents his girlfriend spending time with other men. It also doesn't seem to matter that she's as old as my mum. She talks a bit about her inter-cultural relationship and the problems that come with it, and I chime in a bit as well.
Afterwards she drives me to the airport, and I thank her very much for that, seeing that it's not usual to be picked up and driven to the airport by your host, but to her it seems to be normal. I guess I don't need to have such a bad conscience then. Petrol is only about 1/10th of what it is in Europe, anyway. We say our goodbyes and I move on to the next chapter.
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