I’m in Doha, Qatar on a reporting trip. I’ll save the details of what I’m doing here for now. Suffice it to say, it’s soccer-related. Stay tuned for more in the near future.
I do feel compelled to share a few impressions of Qatar, though. I’ve been walking around the past two days, and ideas for ways to explain just how boring this place is keep popping into my head, and well, I needed to get a few onto the page. If any Qataris are reading this, please don’t be offended. It’s not you; it’s Qatar.
It’s hard to imagine a city more different personality-wise from Cairo than Doha. Or with less personality. This was immediately apparent when I stepped outside of the airport on Tuesday night and instead of a couple hundred cab drives shouting at me and trying to take my bags off my hands, there was only a well-lit sign in English, instructing me to turn right to find the taxi line. There, I found a row of three light green Karwa taxis (the only real taxis you’ll see in Qatar, more or less).
After settling into the front seat, I hesitated a second, waiting for the cab driver to ask me where I was going. He didn’t, so I told him. “Yes,” he responded, as if he psychically knew. After a couple minutes of silence, I asked how far my hotel was. “Not far,” came the reply. I sensed our conversation was over.We continued along the almost-deserted three-lane boulevard–that, flanked by gated properties and the bay, somehow evoked the upscale sterility of Boca Raton, except much worse–for a mile or so, until we arrived at my bargain-rate hotel in the “old” section of town.
I put “old” in quotes because here that label would appear to apply to anything built more than five years ago. Doha seems to consist almost entirely of construction projects and recently-completed construction projects, producing a highly depressing mix of ugly buildings and dirt-filled lots.
I spent most of the day yesterday hanging around a much nicer hotel-cum-shopping mall in the heart of downtown, which, despite its fairly extensive selection of restaurants and stores selling luxury goods is attached to another mall. A huge one, in fact–aptly called City Center–where just about all social interaction in the city seems to take place. After walking for a half-hour in the vicinity of the hotel looking for a place to eat lunch, I had to retreat to the mall and content myself with Chinese food from the food court.
After another unfruitful walk a few hours later, I returned to the hotel and asked the man at the front desk, perhaps a bit too pretentiously: “What do people do around here for fun?”
“Well,” he replied, considering the question carefully, as if “fun” was a novel concept, “what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Like where do people hang out at night?”
“There’s a market where there are some cafes,” he offered.
I haven’t made it out there yet. I had some reporting to take care of last night. I promise to return to this space with a full apology to all of Qatar if it turns out to be the most happening market in the world.
I suspect not. If there’s one saving grace to this place, it’s the people, who are, by and large, extremely hospitable. They’re also, by and large, very bored. Overwhelmingly South Asian (although there are plenty of Egyptians too –something on that to come in the next few days), with Qataris only comprising 13% of the population and Arabs 28%, many have been here for 5, 10, 15 years even. When I ask how they like it here, I get, at best, a resigned shrug, at worst, a quasi-diatribe on how intolerable things are.
Of course, these expats do not come for a hopping nightlife or a sense of community. They come to make money, driving a taxi or working in construction or human resources or the oil and gas industry. My cab driver last night, a young Ugandan, put it succinctly: “We’ve come to get our money, and that’s it.” He was recruited in Uganda, along with some friends, by the taxi company, which paid for his airfare and secured him a work visa.
“There’s no lifestyle here,” one woman, who recently moved to Qatar from Greece to get away from the the upheaval there, told me. “But it’s peaceful, and it’s orderly here.”
Most want to leave as soon possible (though some do say they want to stay, citing peacefulness an orderliness). But many get stuck, saddled with the responsibility of supporting their families back home. That was the case with my cabbie just a few minutes ago who went off about the indignities of life in Qatar, including not being allowed in the mall on Fridays and Saturdays as a bachelor.
Before heading off to the outskirts of Doha last night to the Egyptian national team’s game against Niger (whoops, I’ve given it away!), I went to the mall in search of a restaurant showing Qatar’s World Cup qualifier against Iran in Tehran. I couldn’t find one until I happened upon a sports bar, its windows tinted. Outside, the gentleman minding the door asked for ID and proceeded to scan my passport. I stared at him incredulously for a second, before recalling Qatar’s obscenely restrictive alcohol laws. Inside was a proper sports bar, with a decent selection of spirits and more flat-screen TVs than I could count. I hadn’t been planning on having a drink, but I gratefully accepted the bartender’s offer of a beer.
I savored it, lamenting the fact that most Qataris couldn’t do the same. In no place without alcohol has alcohol been so badly needed.