Musings from Doha

8 Aug 2014

Qatar is a sun-scoured and sweltering peninsula no larger than Yorkshire or Connecticut. Its honey-hued sands stretch north from the Saudi border into the pearl-strewn shallows of the Persian Gulf. It is hands-down the wealthiest nation on earth and it shows in every respect. When I arrived I was stunned by the undimmed extravagance of the sprawling, palatial airport—its massive art installations, sumptuous water features, and immigrations desks of gleaming backlit marble.

 

I didn’t know then that I was marveling at the purely plebeian part of the airport, the proletarian division built especially for commoners and working-class lowbrows like me. There is another section, only for rich Qataris (by which I mean most Qataris—14% of them are millionaires, and no one lives below the poverty line) and for visiting diplomats and dignitaries. When the emir found out that the original taps and toilets in the VIP wing were gold plated, he had them all ripped out immediately and replaced with fixtures made of solid gold. 

 

He is a character, this emir, with many friends and no enemies. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, he is called. Following years of Al Thani tradition, he grants his citizens houses and land when they marry and he sometimes pays off all of their credit card balances, just to be a nice guy. He doesn’t even bother collecting taxes. It’s like living in the midst of an extended royal family and receiving a few fringe benefits. 

 

The immigrations officer was regal and proud to the point of unspoken condescension. He was tall and statuesque, solemn and bored, a mogul in flawless white robes. Housesitting is far too similar to working to admit when you enter on a tourist visa. So I locked up my lion heart and made my gaze demure as he began his onslaught of questions. Where did I live? Where had I come from? How long did I intend to stay? When he asked what I wanted to do here in Doha, I decided it was time to silence him. So I murmured in the softest, most deferential tone that I’d be staying with friends until my husband arrived and then he would decide on our plans. His dusky eyes searched out my wedding ring, he nodded, and he stamped me in with no further questions. I gave a slight bow, gathered my things, and laughed silently all the way to baggage claim. 

 

I’m staying in a spacious, well-appointed modern townhouse made of sand-colored clay and polished marble. The owners are lovely, an Egyptian-British couple gone to visit his family in Derby. They wined me, dined me, and sent me for a pedicure(!) before they flew off to Birmingham. Their cats are lustrous, long-legged creatures with wide, Arabian stares. 

 

It is strange to have a driver, a three-storey house, a sparkling, sculptural infinity pool. I shared a rustic, unheated room in Addo with two other worktrade volunteers. Before that, a tiny loft in Old Patan with crooked and creaking wooden floors. And before that, a dusty, sixth floor room in a dilapidated school building in China. The roof there leaked and the fiercest of the thunderstorms would flood the steep, crumbling stairwell. 

 

But despite the well-to-do nature of this place, it’s missing little things we think nothing of in the States, things that I have even in my 50-year-old apartment that rents for $850 per month. I begin to wonder if dishwashers and dryers are purely American indulgences. 

 

Before he left, Simon taught me all the different headdresses worn by the Arab men: the flowing white Qatari gutra, the red checkered Saudi keffiyeh, the gilded and intricately twisted folds of the glimmering Omani mussar. Despite the males strutting their ethnicities like peacocks all the women are shrouded in black. But I see them unveiled in the ladies’ room, the nail salon—I see what is beneath the abaya. They are beautiful, with sensuous lips and dark lashes, wearing high heels, lipstick, mascara. Beneath their robes, they are far more decorated and lavishly done up than I am. They do have the vote here, they run for office, they are educated and licensed to drive. I cover to my elbows and my knees when I go out, but I don’t have to wear a headscarf.

 

The heat is like a madness, a shimmering mirage, dancing in languorous crescendos of pressure like the breath of a sleeping dragon. It's impossible to be outside for an hour, even in the middle of the night. But even the souqs are partially air conditioned, full of little refrigerated respites.

 

I am surprised to realize that I wouldn't mind living here, despite the conservative social climate. I love Middle Eastern art, food, and music; I love the multicultural population. I love being situated in a city en route, a city in the midst of transformation.  Anywhere so strange and yet also so comfortable is an excellent candidate for a homebase. And being a short flight away from Europe or Egypt or India or The Maldives?! I would trade that location for booze and bacon in a heartbeat, at least for a while. 

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