Dazzling Doha

 

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It’s a startling experience to emerge from an underground, state-of-the-art parking garage full of Lexus and BMW’s, to a lot full of camels! In the Middle East, old and new have a tendency to rub shoulders.

img_2916My favourite place to visit in Doha was perhaps the souq. Historically, the souq is where all trade took place. The gold souq, the falcon souq, the spice souq. Because Qatar’s sandstone buildings did not withstand the ages, the ‘old’ souq here is new. It has been build to resemble a historic one with dark ceiling beams and narrow passages. It feels, sounds and smells wonderful. Indian traders offer anything from plastic sandals to glittering cloth to pots large enough to hold an entire goat.

img_2892At night, after dark, the souq is alive with people milling about, buying things, smoking a water pipe, sipping coffee. I love how safe it is here. Many of my North American friends say “Be careful going there!” but I feel safe knowing that people do not steal, do not carry guns and do not harass women. I can walk down dark alleys with no problem at all.

One of my favourite parts was the falcon souq. Falcons are an important part of Qatar’s heritage. These birds are highly skilled and trained, costing up to a million dollars! img_2983The souq is next to the Falcon Hospital…no kidding. Falcon trainers walk around with a hooded bird perched on their gloved fist. These birds can travel in the cabin of airplanes on Qatar Airways and even have their own ‘passport’ with inoculations etc. listed.img_2981

Next to this new/old souq is Katara: a beautiful part of downtown dedicated to culture. Besides the mosque is a gorgeous marble amphitheatre, a pigeon tower, and buildings housing cultural workshops.

I worked in 5 international schools in Doha, all beautiful buildings with lovely students from many countries, many of them second language learners. One boy in Grade 5 told me he speaks 5 languages…

 

 

Did you know that the weekend in the Middle East is on Friday and Saturday? On Friday many people attend a sermon in the mosque, then have family time to do things together. Stores are often closed on Friday. It takes a bit of getting used to going back to work or school on Sunday!

img_2940One day we visited Sheikh Faizal’s Museum outside the city. What a fascinating place. Apparently the Sheikh was a hoarder. He collected things that made sense, but also a lot of things that made no sense at all. I kept wondering if his wife/wives despaired at his tendency to collect stuff. At some point, he simply had a colossal building build to house all of his stuff: a huge collection of ’50 and ’60 American cars. Matchboxes. Coins. Boats.

img_3029However, some of his stuff is allowing an important part of Qatar’s history to be preserved, perhaps not because he meant to preserve it but simply because he collected it. The museum has a room full of dinosaur bones and fossils (pretty special in the Middle East).

There is a room dedicated to the first medical doctor in Doha, a female! Complete with all of her tools, even a rare wooden bicycle ambulance.

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Pigeon Tower, Katara

I was floored to see rooms on world religions, including Jewish prayer shawls and a Roman Catholic confession stand. There were endless rooms of breathtaking carpets, one woven with real gold. A collection of Qur’ans including the world’s smallest Qur’an, a tiny square inch.

The museum is now serving as a practise ground for students studying museum sciences. Display cases are being build, Middle Eastern clothing and jewelry is being displayed, carpets are being protected. It feels like order is slowly turning the chaos of piles of stuff into a fascinating museum collection. A great place to visit if you want to see Arabian heritage.

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Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A much more traditional, established museum is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. Its art collection includes Middle Eastern ceramics, jewels, scripts, calligraphy. A visiting display, this time, shared China’s terra cotta warriors with Qatar residents. But what really caught my interest, was the building itself. Amazing architecture has the outside top of the building resemble a woman’s traditional Qatari face mask. batulaThe inside of the building was equally impressive with its gleaming marble and intriguing lines, mirrored in the water.

If you have time to spend in Qatar, be sure to take a desert excursion. These are available for half or full days but also overnight trips. To sleep under the starry sky in the desert, in a Bedouin camp, is a wonderful experience, complete with camel rides and dune buggies. A tour company will pick you up at your hotel. However, Qatar is not cheap. In the old souq there can be a little bit of bartering, but prices of restaurant meals, groceries, clothing, souvenirs and tours are high.

https://www.visitqatar.qa

http://www.fbqmuseum.org

http://www.mia.org.qa/en/ img_2869

Qatar: from Bedouins to Buicks

img_2710Qatar, a small peninsula country in the Middle East, is difficult to understand*. Ruled by an Emir, Qatar once was one of the poorest countries, but now it is one of wealthiest. This change happened in a very short time thank to oil and gas.qa-map

92% of its + 2 million inhabitants live in the capital city of Doha. But the strangest fact is that only around 10% of the population is Qatari. The remaining 90% is expats, mostly from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries where men seek work. These foreign workers run the stores, clean the hotels, drive the taxis and build the buildings and roads. img_3095

Qataris were a nomadic people until recent history. Living a difficult life in the desert was no longer necessary once oil was discovered. Those three letters changed life forever here. The desert was reshaped into an ultra modern city with all of its conveniences.  The Emir, the ruler, decreed that all Qatari would receive an income from the profits of oil. No one over the age of 18 needs to work, although Qatari do hold government and managerial positions. The daily chores are performed by people who come from all over the world to find work and who send home their income to support families overseas. The young man who drove me while in Doha put two sisters through school in Bangladesh and supported his mother in raising her family there.

img_2879The buildings of Doha are incredible. It reminds me of how my husband Kees once worked with a group of high school students to help them design the skateboard park of their dreams. He gave each one a bit of play dough and told them to shape their favourite jump. Doha feels like different people dreamed up their favourite building and then just built it. qatar-national-convention-center The skyline is made up of vase shaped skyscrapers, at night highlighted in different colours. The torch hotel is shaped like a torch. The new Sidra hospital resembles ships sailing into port. The national library made me think of a gigantic airplane. Each building is executed in marble, glass, chrome – with dazzling results.lw6272_55199331_720x450

In the process of changing lifestyles, Qatar runs the risk of losing its heritage. On my first night here I was lucky enough to witness the Dhow Festival. Dhows are long, sleek traditional wooden boats that plow the waters of the Gulf. Along the Corniche, the boulevard that skirts the water, were demonstrations of traditional skills: opening pearl oysters, handmaking fishing nets, buildings boats, making palm leaf baskets. Older men sat crosslegged on carpets to demonstrate these skills. img_2721However, they had all been brought in from Oman because Qataris no longer have or practise these skills. Different shaped head dress or different coloured outfits indicated people from different Middle Eastern countries. There was singing and dancing, even the playing of conch shells. Strong coffee was brewed in copper kettles on hot coals while thousands of people strolled along, in a sea of white (men in starched thobes) and black (women in abbayas). Little boys in spotless white thobes ran along, free as birds. Flocks of young, veiled women giggled and strolled along the boulevard. It was an enchanting, Arabian night! img_2803I always like knowing, during festivals in the Middle East, that there is no drinking of alcohol involved. I always feel safe because there is virtually no crimes here. Severe punishments ensure that no one steals. I was even told that you can leave your bank card in the ATM machine and no one will take it…. I didn’t test it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. There is virtually no pickpocketing!img_2772

The temperatures were amazingly perfect while I visited. In summer it can be 40 or even 50 degrees C but now it was a beautiful 24… Qatar has one or two days of rain each year and, as luck would have it, I experienced both of these days. Rain fell so furiously that, within an hour, streets were flooded. Homes, even the airport, flooded. This happens each year. Traffic comes to a screeching halt as roads flood and are impassable. Two days later, it’s all dried up for another year…

In my next blog I will tell you about some special sites to visit if you are in Qatar.

* A note of caution: as with my stories about any place I visit, I do not pretend to truly know Qatar after only visiting there for 2 weeks. My stories are merely aimed at sharing my personal experience there, and I might well get much of my understanding wrong.img_2758qfis-mosque_dsc3152