Typically when I arrive somewhere new, it’s much easier to see what’s great about the place rather than what’s not, largely because you are faced with a host of new culture novelties, which even if you don’t like, you can find interesting in some way shape or form.
My experience of the Middle East before I landed in Qatar was limited, my small sample having only been Egypt, Israel and Palestine.
When our experience is so limited, so becomes our knowledge regardless of how many books and websites we may read in advance. And so I read, but doing so didn’t prepare me for the modern sleekness of the architecture, products and services in and around Doha, Qatar’s capital city.
As I was reminded on a formal tour I did to the north of the country on my first day, the country is incredibly small; you can drive west to east in about an hour.
Just because Qatar is adjacent to the United Arab Emirates, I didn’t expect Doha to be Dubai’s kid brother in the Middle East, especially since Dubai is so renowned for being THE modern shopping & commerce mecca of the area. If Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East, Doha is the Disneyworld.
Of course being a white American chick who was visiting for an International Summit, it’s only natural I’d be staying at a swanky hotel near the City Center, surrounded by countless other swanky hotels, coated with modern shiny materials that hurt your eyes when the sun shines on them. Frankly, it’d be hard to tell them apart if they didn’t have their name plastered on the front in English which is often not the case in Las Vegas.
I decided to walk around the City Center area near the mall even though it’s clearly a pedestrian-unfriendly area since its essentially a half mile to a mile radius of massive tall mirror, steel and marble towering structures, piled on top of each other with very little breathing space in between. Wide roads with traffic lights separated the ‘towers’ and in between the finished towers are tractors and ladders with construction workers building out the next monstrosity. A colleague counted over 200 cranes as we made our way out of the city for an expedition and you could easily keep counting.
As awful as this sounds, it felt a bit like the visual of the bulldozers I saw and heard in the Amazon Jungle while I was camping in the middle of Paradise, brought in by giant oil companies after whatever resources the region could provide. Yet Doha is a city, not the Amazon Jungle, surrounded by flat white sand in every direction as you make your way out of the center.
After my walk, I made my way back to the hotel. Still overwhelmed by the generic western American-ness of the mall, I was hungry for anything that felt local. I made my way through the empty plastic cups and coke cans which lay on the side of the street amidst other garbage. I passed a torn up tree whose remains hadn’t yet been picked up. To my right was a well manicured bank where a neighboring hotel had planted a few mini-palms, yet I had to reach out and touch and smell one just to make sure they were in fact real.
Then I heard a few birds as I made my way around the corner past the W Hotel which had two buses outside waiting to escort westerners to some event or another. They tweeted and I mean real tweets, not online ones. Music to my ears to hear real birds, real life, real beauty in the middle of this generic city sprawl which had become so normal to everyone who lived here.
I decided to talk to a few locals, which isn’t easy to do btw, since everyone you seem to ask isn’t from Qatar. The majority of the people I met had moved here from Pakistan, Lebanon, India, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Oh, those gorgeous Sri Lankan features !
I had to remind myself how new the country was from a development perspective. As a result, Qatar is still a country (and Doha as a city), is in search of an identity yet has focused all of its efforts so far less on the identify and more on massive growth without “it appears” much intention as to “who they are” and “what they represent.”
While they have brought in some top notch designers and architects, it appears that they haven’t thought about flow or image, like hiring the artist without the designer, without the architect, without the city planner. As I made my way through the towering jungle of steel and metal, I was overcome by a sense of plasticity in a way I’ve never felt before.
If there was a Qatar architecture, I wouldn’t know what it was in Doha. If there was a Qatar personality, I couldn’t feel it, find it or taste it.
While all of this may sound harsh, this first post on Qatar is simply coming from a place of how it felt after being there for 30 or so hours – my follow up posts are much broader and rounder in my opinion and of course I had more facts from locals and expats who were eager to share the positive things about the place. (and there are many).
I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my original assessment, and while even some of the locals who migrated from other places may agree, they’re here for the growth and prospects of growth, not unlike people who fled west first for the gold rush and later for the Internet rush. And, this isn’t a bad thing, since the immigrants who will be as hungry for growth, knowledge and money as those seeking it in Silicon Valley, will create their own sub-culture and identity which will help shape Qatar as a country. Western influence has even hits the north of the country.
Three of the buildings in Doha rank in the list of tallest buildings in the world; the Al Fardan Residences and the twin towers Palm Tower 1 and Palm Tower 2. Aspire Tower is 984 feet tall and Doha media Center stands at a wopping 938 feet tall. The Doha Convention Center Tower is still under construction but aims to be 1312 feet all and is slated to be complete in 2012. There are at least five in the 1,000+ feet range that are currently under construction and while the crowded buildings in the center may be a bit much, there are some interesting gems within the stack – modern and icy and modern and designed to look ‘old and historical.
Additionally, there is some fascinating pieces inside structures that are well worth a call out. Both the Modern Art Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art are well worth visiting. (see follow up posts on both, which include photos and a fabulous exhibit from world-class artist Cai Guo-Qiang. (photos of his exhibit here). One of my favorites below.
While my meals in the first 30 hours was limited to two well renowned international hotels and the mall, there are many a’ good restaurant in Doha, bearing in mind that the majority of food in Qatar is imported. Let’s just say I ate well…
And, while it may have been hard to find local Qatari’s, the people you do meet are warm, engaging, inquisitive and eager to learn. To avoid less positive treatment, be sure to cover your shoulders and wear skirts and dresses below the knee if you’re a woman. Women dress very conservatively when in public, whether its getting from A to B or shopping.
I realized after a couple of days, like all places we visit for the first time, I had only touched the tip of the iceberg – there was so much to learn and see in Qatar despite its small size. And understanding Qatar isn’t about understanding Qatar alone – it helps you understand the whole region. Understanding “it” puts Dubai into perspective and vice versa, and if you stick around for long enough, you’ll run into people from neighboring countries so you can open up your mind a bit to what life is like in Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates. (I talked to people from all of these regions and more, on the ground).
Pondering all of the above, I knew before I put words to paper, that my second and third blog post would be quite different than my first impressions, which are captured here. I hadn’t been there long enough to experience the sand dunes in the south or to take a walk along the beach, or to see the natural beauty of the Mangroves in the north.
I quieted my mind that was full of so many first impressions so I could hear the birds tweet again as I turned the corner to the street of my hotel. And, amidst the shiny city monstrosities around me, I listened to those birds with as much intention I could give them on that late April afternoon day as I watched the sun set off in the distance, observing how each and everywhere I go, the sun seems to go to bed just a little differently.
For more on Qatar, check out posts on Qatar and the region here. Also check out my write-up on Doha Kempinski & W Hotels. For an interesting post on the Murakami Ego exhibit, also in Doha, go here. For more on arts in general, go here. For great images and an overview on Doha’s Souq Waqif, go here.
Photos 1 & 3 & supermarket shot (city view & blue building): John Werner
Photos 2, 4 & 5 (cranes & city buildings): Javier Yunes