Damnation. I have a Birkenstock tan on my feet. I self-consciously run into the swimming pool the moment I notice, pretending the floor is hot as I ooo-ahh my way into the cool water and give a pretend sigh of relief to the family staring at me. As usual, I am too busy being concerned about what other people think that I found myself making the same mistakes, and it was later that afternoon I realised I was once again negligent with the sunscreen. I cursed at myself as I visually toured my body in the bathroom mirror, peering over the tan lines that were all over me from my midriff to the sides of my neck. I look like a harpsichord!
Apart from the self-effacing critique worthy of any thespian tragedy, I will admit spending the incredibly hot day on Banana Island after a ridiculous fifteen hour flight from Melbourne to Doha was exactly what I needed. If it weren’t for the gruesome exhaustion, however, I would likely hate this place. The superficiality, the plastic plants, the buffet of cheesecakes made from artificial powder all of which I avoided. Resorts are not my thing, but maybe it is the type of place for families with children who can enjoy the recreational activities available, or the pretentious who want to relish in their wealth. It can cost a hefty amount to stay there, but luckily they offer day tickets for outsiders like me to visit and for 350 riyal, you can get a ferry to the island and some food and recreational vouchers.
It was the rest that I needed. The painfully hot weather kept most people off the beach and in the swimming pools, so I moved away from the crowds to find that I had the entire beach to myself as I quietly read my book under the shadow of banana leaf huts, eating cold apples and having a nap here and there. If I felt too hot, a quick swim did the trick and it was a wonderful way to overcome jet lag.
When Qatar airways offered some pretty delightful transit deals as part of my flight package, I decided to stay for a few days in Doha find out more about this unique country in the Arabian peninsula. Doha. Oh, Doha, Doha, Dohaaa. I am not even sure how to describe you. Well Doha is like a clean-shaven, attractive man who takes you out on a date to a Michelin star restaurant, punctually collecting you at 8pm in his Bentley and spending most of the time talking about the expensive things that he owns. In the eyes of many women, that may perhaps sound like a wonderful experience. For me? I would think the guy was a douche, a manicured man who wears too much cologne and has an artificially created personality that lacks the substance needed to enjoy having real conversations.
I would be more keen to go on a date with an unpolished guy in his jeans and t-shirt who asked me to ride our bikes to have breakfast somewhere local and managed to make me laugh as we talk about something historical or philosophical. In fact, I would likely marry him. I think Italy, maybe even Greece.
The picture above is an example of the challenge I faced, an entire community named Villaggio built to resemble Venice. That is just plain weird. Perhaps it is me, my own version of Orientalism where the Middle East captures my imagination from the mix of my favourite colour turquoise with accentuates of gold and white, the wooden window panels with geometric carvings, the art and calligraphy, and especially the desert landscape with its raw red and dusty yellow. But, even a visit to the Katara Cultural Village seemed like an artificial experience blanketed by a very well manicured identity. I searched everywhere for some real Qatari culture only to find myself feeling displaced and disappointed as though there exists a secret dynamic hidden from our reach, that behind all this glamour lies a personality that is either incredibly secretive or entirely dismissive.
I remind myself of the age of this country, indeed the modern state of Qatar is very young and so is their wealth that – whether we would like to admit to this or not – has had a significant impact on what it is today. Qatar is one of the most wealthiest countries in the world when it discovered oil in the 1940s and by the 1970s became an independent nation when it decided to opt out of becoming a part of the United Arab Emirates. Their relationship with the west, particularly the UK and the US has often be complimentary and have supported international forces to use their base during the gulf war. The Al Thani family became monarchs in Qatar after being installed by the British in the early twentieth century and the country functions under this absolute monarchy, and only introduced the constitution in 1995 when Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani ousted his father to modernise the country, but while promising democratic elections, political parties and and parliamentary elections have been postponed… indefinately.
Most of the country’ population are non-Qatari foreign workers who have arrived from other countries like Iran and India for work. While Qatari men and women could be seen on occasion, it felt as though they were dismissive and even annoyed, as the upper class would behave toward those of a lower class. It was like two realities, and I was not allowed to experience the real Qatari people. It certainly reinforces Islamic culture and indeed a very strict one, where men maintain their privileged position as the head of a patriarchal system. Rules that attempt to harmonise and balance the relationship between foreign workers and Qatari family values that strictly reinforce an Islamic way of life reminds us of this clear division of cultures that balances a national identity and kinship conventions.
Whether it is the fault of wealth, modernisation or Islam is hardly possible to explain, but whatever the case is there are certainly some incredible opportunities to enjoy this Gulf State away from all the foreign employees, to get lost in the museums such as the Museum of Islamic Art or even go out and visit the the Richard Serra sculpture East-West West-East in the middle of the Qatari desert that brings a wealth of new experiences and opportunity to learn. The museum was absolutely incredible and while some of the floors remain closed, navigating and weaving through various times of Islamic history both from ancient to the Ottomans was fantastic. I learnt so much about Islam’ medical, scientific and artistic history.
I also stayed at the Souq Waqif and again, while very polished and filled with foreigners, there are some great places to shop and buy spices and little gifts. The Souq also has the opportunity to visit the Falcon Souq and hospital dedicated to the national animal that is highly respected and admired by the Qatari people, in fact seen as a prestigious career. You can also visit the Al Shaqab and see the Arabian horses and the long history of adoration for this beautiful beast.
As my jetlag slowly dissipated and I came back to my senses, I realised that I could never really connect emotionally to the country as one usually would when they experience culture and its people, but I nevertheless highly recommend a stopover to visit the museums and see this unique part of the Arabian gulf. I hope one day foreigners like myself would be permitted to experience the real side of Qatar so that we can fall in love, rather than simply like, this country for who he really is and not for what he looks like or owns.