Qatar Travelogue

These were originally written as a series of Facebook posts when I traveled to Doha, Qatar with the Dean of my school to discuss a joint venture with a satellite campus there. Lightly edited for the blog.

September 6-11, 2018

Entry #1: Holy shit, I’m in Qatar! Never expected to have an opportunity to travel to this part of the world. Not sure what to expect.

Entry #2: This is my first time ever traveling business class. It’s a strange and fascinating experience. From the special airport lounge to the priority boarding to the private cabin-like seating with sliding door and full recline into a bed to the many amenities (including pajamas and slippers), it is a cocooned journey, made easy and pleasant by smiling workers at every turn. They can tell I’m an interloper, and they are exceedingly polite about it.

white tablecloth with small dishes, utensils, bread, and fake candle
Dinner by “candlelight”

Like an anthropologist trying to adhere to the scripts of this foreign culture while frantically taking mental notes, I have my eyes and ears wide open. There are 8 separate buttons for seat adjustment and an amuse-bouche arrives with my dinner, served on cloth by “candlelight.” The separate multi-page menus for food and drink offer a carefully curated selection of global abundance and flavors. Every time I get up to use the bathroom, they ask me if I would like something to drink; and they place a fresh toilet seat cover onto the commode and fold the toilet paper end into a neat point after every use. There is the constant illusion that the world is remade each time for your comfort and yours alone. I hardly interact with the other passengers. They could just as well not exist. The only interactions are with the half dozen flight attendants who appear at regular intervals to offer me what I need, always with their bright smiles. It is seductive, this being catered to with such solicitousness, this world in which the hands and faces who appear in my orbit are there to serve me and ensure my happiness. I’m relieved when I can turn out the light, put in my earplugs, and be left alone for a few unconscious hours.

Entry #3: Flying business class is one thing, but TRAVELING business class comes with some additional full-service treatment that is also new to me. On arrival, the dean and I meet with a travel service rep who guides us to a quiet lounge area where we wait for our checked bags to be collected. Another attendant takes our drink order, and still another person brings it to us on a tray. When our bags come, we are processed through customs by an agent who sits in a single booth in this lounge – there is no line and no delay. Another worker pushes our luggage cart as the travel rep walks us through baggage claim and hands us off to the driver, who takes the cart from there. Once settled in the car, we’re offered complimentary wi-fi service. At the very grand Grand Hyatt Hotel, more people: the doorman opens the door to greet us, the bell hop whisks our bags away, there’s a greeter who extends her arm toward the reception desk, and the friendly clerk who checks me in tells me about the restaurant options as he hands me the welcome bag from the university, which contains a cell phone pre-loaded with emergency contacts, along with a charger with adapter and ID badge. The same greeter offers us sweet dates as we make our way to the elevator. This is what it feels like to have “handlers.”

The room, of course, is lovely. I get my bearings and decide that instead of ordering room service, I’ll eat at the award-winning Thai restaurant the clerk told me about. I’m fascinated by my fellow diners, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic lot: some families, some couples, a bridal party, a group of young men with party hats, an older couple, he in a crisp white “thawb,” she in a long, dark, elaborately embroidered robe. Who are these people? What are they doing here, at this hotel and in Qatar? Are they here for work, for pleasure? I can’t help but wonder again and again what it must feel like to have this be your norm. Is all this comfort and luxury in fact comforting? Does it erode your sense of empathy? I see children and babies – what’s it like to grow up in this kind of world? Do they notice the omnipresence of workers around them like I do? – everywhere I look, quietly attentive, smiling, bowing, nodding, offering, cleaning, anticipating. I keep coming back to them. What are their lives like? Where do they live? Where do they come from?

A few quick google searches tell me that there are 313,000 Qatari citizens and 2.3 million foreign workers, most of them from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. But also Thailand, the Philippines, and African countries. A small peninsula sticking out into the Persian Gulf, Qatar is the 3rd largest oil producing country in the region; it’s investing heavily in infrastructure to prepare for hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first Arab nation to do so. The conditions of migrant workers in Qatar has been highly criticized, although the UN dismissed complaints against the nation a few years ago in light of modest reforms promised by the government.

All this labor to support a small city’s worth of citizens and visitors like me. When I get back to my room, I notice that in the short time I was gone, someone has been there. There are two extra bottles of water and the soap wrapper I threw in the trash can is gone, and yes, the end of the toilet paper has been folded into a neat point. What a species we are.

Entry #4: Saturday afternoon, we get a guided tour of the city from Firas, a Syrian man who has lived in Doha for 12 years. We stop for an hour at the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei with a tower that’s supposed to look like a woman’s eyes peeking out from behind a burqa. There are also some exquisite decorative arts inside, including a lustrous Persian rug with pomegranate design. But mostly we’re driven around in an air-conditioned Toyota SUV. Almost all of Doha seems like new construction, and there’s still a lot of building going on. It’s one glass skyscraper after another, punctuated by stone buildings in the style of more traditional Islamic architecture. They all seem to be shouting, “behold! I am a marvel of engineering and human ingenuity.” Much of the vegetation, including the palm trees, were imported and are kept green and lush by a recycled water system, Firas tells us. The place reminds me of Las Vegas, an improbable city rising up in defiance of its environment, with the same theme park feel.  Every tower is like a big middle finger to nature’s inhospitability.

I try to sound interested as our guide points out hotels and luxury resorts with various distinguishing features throughout the drive, but it just seems like developers trying to outdo each other in opulence and spectacle, and the buildings start to blur together. What does get my attention is a new development called The Pearl – an artificially made island connected to the peninsula by a ribbon of road and made to resemble pearls in shells or a pearl necklace or a seahorse,  suspended in the shallow waters of the gulf. Before oil and gas transformed the region, fishing and pearl diving were important industries. There are a few such references to Qatar’s past in a place that’s all about the shininess of now. The island boasts the first properties that can be bought by foreign nationals, so the 0.1-percenters of the world can have their pick of waterfront properties. The question that bubbles up for me is, “how is all this sustainable?!” Apparently, Qatar is preparing for a future after the oil and gas run out, which is why they’re investing heavily in new areas like international sport and education, which is part of why I’m here. But the rate of resource expenditure is staggering to imagine – they have outdoor air conditioning, for god’s sake! — and my thoughts turn apocalyptic.

Our guide is showing off his adopted home, saying “here we have this” and “there we have that,” rattling off facts about the emir and his three wives and their separate residences and the road made of rubber that leads to the palace where he works and receives guests. The emir or his cousin has amassed a collection of 600 antique cars. The emir or his cousin bought a 700-year-old Syrian house, had it disassembled piece by piece, transported, and reassembled in Doha. Firas says that he’d visited the house and cried because he didn’t want it outside of Syria. It’s just another anecdote, told in the same animated, accented English as the others. I have so many questions, but I keep them to myself. We move on, and he tells us about the importance of falcons in Arab culture, and how Qataris collect falcons, too, paying up to $100,000 for one bird. There is a falcon hospital in Doha and the birds get issued their own passports. An exhibition of falconry is going on in one of the venues we drive by. These magnificent birds are excellent hunters; training and keeping a barely domesticated bird of prey that won’t kill you or tear your eyes out makes a certain kind of sense in this extreme place.

Entry #5:

At the falcon shop

FALCONS! We went to the Souq Waqif last night, a large outdoor market rebuilt a few years ago in the traditional style. Meandering pathways of shops and restaurants. And next to the falcon hospital, a row of falcon shops. The birds are tied down rather than caged. I take short videos of them eating raw chicken legs grasped in their talons. Available for purchase along with the falcons are a variety of masks, ranging from plain to fully tricked out. I am kicking myself for not buying a few as souvenirs. It was all a bit overwhelming.

As thrilling as it was to see these birds up close, there’s something melancholy about wild animals in captivity. A few of them flapped their wings every once in a while, but most of them had been trained to sit on their perches. How often do they get to spread their wings and do what they were designed to do?

Entry #6: When I mentioned to my boss my regret about not buying a couple of falcon masks last night, he suggested we could have the car service stop at the souq after our work day was done. We got there too early (it’s closed from 1-4pm); I felt bad making him wait, so I asked if the driver could take him back to the hotel and bring me back. He agreed.

On the way back to the falcon souq, the driver asked me about my visit. It’s been interesting, I said, I’m here for work. Where are you from?, I asked. Nepal, he said.

Aside from our tour guide the other day, this was the first time I’d talked with a driver, although we had been ferried back and forth across the city almost a dozen times by now. When you’re riding with your boss, talking shop or making small talk about kids and other topics, drivers don’t try to join the conversation. This was my first time in the city unaccompanied.

Because he had bothered to engage, I asked another question: how long have you been here? One year.
And another: do you like it here?
An emphatic no. He said something else I didn’t catch about why he didn’t like it. I asked him if he knew other Nepalis here. He didn’t know anyone. “No family, no happy,” he said.

“That must be hard,” I said. He was going to stay one more year and then go back. Some stay 8, 10 years, but he wasn’t going to do that. He missed home too much.

A long pause. The weight of his sadness, his loneliness filled the car.

“Who is your family back in Nepal?” I wanted to know who he was missing so much. It was hard to guess his age.

“My mother, my wife, and baby.” His wife had been pregnant when he’d left (he gestured a pregnant belly with his hand) so he hadn’t yet met his child, now 9 months old. “Oh. You have to go back,” I replied.

He dropped me off and I was to call him when I was done. I bought the masks in less than 10 minutes, made the call, and waited for him to come back around. We rode back in silence. I felt for the U.S. dollars in my purse; it was going to feel inadequate, but maybe it would help both of us a little. As I got out, I told him, “I spent all my riyal, but I want to leave this here. Maybe you can buy something for the baby.” He looked at me and nodded. “Have a safe trip back home,” I said.

Qatar Postscript:
1) Never been happier to be home!
2) Got back in time to pick the kids up from school
3) Falcon mask fits Small Duck
4) 6-year-old named the camel Humpy
5) Grateful to my love for making it all possible.


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