‘لا مصيبة أعظم من الجهل Literal meaning: there is no calamity greater than ignorance.’ – Arabic Proverb
Having the technical evaluation of our visit to Doha out of the way, it’s time for a few personal reflections. Being a middle eastern country, I was curious as to how I would be viewed as a western female. Within the confines of the Four Seasons, I would say that I was certainly in the majority. I saw several veiled women there, but most of the people I saw in the lobby, tea room and restaurants were men in traditional dress, asian businessmen, other western tourists and of course Rich’s ’round-table’ friends. The hotel attracts many international business people, so the majority of visitors I saw were men. In the evenings there were many more women about, arabic and non-arabic, but they seemed to be there in a social capacity, headed for the bar or a private party.
I felt rather like a queen at QCRI dinners, sitting in the middle of a table of 25-30 men and having the wait staff tripping over themselves to serve me first. The idea that women in Qatar are oppressed by men was certainly a myth from my eyes. When off the grounds of the hotel, seeking out local attractions, the majority of people were in traditional dress and lots of women, although not all, were completely veiled. I never felt out of place, gawked at, unsafe or threatened in any way, shape or form during our stay. A great thing about Qatar is that it is so international and it is not unusual for you to meet people from all over the world so it seems as if dressing conservatively is good enough. I did see a couple of skimpy bikinis at the pool, but for the most part, there is a toned-down feel.
Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, but is readily available in the western hotels (for $13 USD per beer), a handful of restaurants and in the increasing night club scene. Non-muslims can obtain a license to purchase liquor to consume in their homes as well. This speaks highly of the their dedication to the Islamic faith and sense of making others feel at home.
This is the beginning of summer in Qatar and the temperature averaged around 104 degrees fahrenheit for the whole week we were there. While the hotel has 3 pools and a private beach, we didn’t venture into the bath tub temperature waters of the sea until well into the evening hours. I did have lunch one afternoon at the pool when it was a ‘cool’ 99 degrees, but for the most part, it’s getting into the time of year that most people leave Qatar for the summer months due to the oppressive heat. On two evenings, while we were out to dinner, the humidity was incredible, but we were told that it was very unusual.
Upon our arrival, everyone suggested that we visit the Villagio Mall. I’m not a huge shopper-kind-a-gal, but it was worth the trip to see. Unlike the ‘Pearl’, this was definitely a more affordable mall. Its unique features are an inside river, complete with gondola and an ice rink. They have a hockey team that plays there as well as ice skating lessons. According to our host, Ahmed, he and his family spend many days there in the summer.
As mentioned, the ‘Pearl’ is another place to shop. Well, window shop, is more like it. The pearl is an island built upon reclaimed land that features high-end shopping on the outside as well as high-priced, luxury housing. In the center is a marina with many beautiful yachts. I come from one of the wealthiest nations in the world and I have NEVER seen money like this before. You can sail in on your private yacht, shop at Jimmy Choo’s, dine at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (which we did) and cap off your day with a visit to the Ferrari dealership which is right next to the Rolls Royce dealer. Yowza!
While playing ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ was fun, my attentions turned elsewhere during our visit. The Museum of Islamic Art is a beautiful, new museum dedicated to just that. They also have special exhibitions which stay for a few months at a time. The building itself is a spectacular creation by I.M. Pei and quickly becoming a staple in the Doha skyline.
Another significant landmark is the Islamic Cultural Center which features a beautiful mosque that is shaped like a shell, reaching into the sky. We wandered into the center and were quickly greeted by Omar who was happy to inform us of the teachings of Islam and answer any questions we had. I inquired if the mosque was open and if we could observe prayer, and we were quickly invited in. I was directed to the ‘ladies area’ and instructed to remain in the back so those who wanted to pray could do so with their view unobstructed. Having been raised a Roman Catholic, in a largely christian country, I had never had the chance to go inside a mosque and I was thrilled at the opportunity. Several ladies welcomed me with ‘As-Salamu Alaykum’ and shook my hand. I felt very welcomed, humbled and honored.
Across from the mosque is the souq, a traditional outdoor market. Souq Waqif is certainly the largest market in Doha, but not the oldest. It has carefully been created to look as if it is hundreds of years old when, in fact, it is only about 5. Never the less, it is a great place to get the vibe of the arab people with many shops, restaurants and often entertainment. A common site is people enjoying shisha, a hooka like pipe with flavored tobacco cubes burning in the top. The rich smells of apple, peach and other fruits are a strong memory in the making. We purchased only a few items at the souq, but the people watching was the highlight for us.
Doha is a modern city with strong, traditional roots. It’s sights, sounds and people will not soon fade from my memory. Their grace, friendship and hospitality was unsurpassed and I truly felt welcome. After this trip, the bridge from Chicago to Qatar and all her kind people seems much shorter.