Actually, don’t let the title mislead you- there is nothing quaint about Doha, Qatar. Awe-inspiring architecture, an electric atmosphere and a thriving cultural context are just a few of the ways I can describe Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Not many people know about this tiny country and as a result, it’s unspoiled… a peaceful oasis amidst the chaotic sand dunes of the Gulf countries.
Why was I in Qatar? Because this panda is fortunate enough to have friends that are happy to host me in their resident countries and how lucky am I that live right next door? With Qatar only being an hour flight away from Kuwait, when my friend, Expat Meerkat asked me to pop by for a weekend, I couldn’t resist accepting the offer.
Upon landing at Doha International Airport (voted best airport in the Middle East apparently… not that they have much competition in my opinion), I joined the long line of peasants waiting in the immigration queue of doom. I knew I would have to purchase a visa because for GCC residents, it’s visa on arrival (100 Qatari riyals). The lady at the information desk assured me that the visa would be sorted out at the immigration counter so I joined the queue and waited for a solid 40 minutes before I finally made it behind a counter.
The Qatari officer took my passport and checked my residency permit. He began typing into his computer and I started twirling my hair waiting for this process to be over. Don’t you just hate this tedious part of traveling? Time went on and other people were moving through to the baggage carousels when I started to worry. Officer Ahmed (no idea of his real name) was typing away into his computer faster than I’ve ever seen a human being type outside of a movie. Sweat pricked my forehead and I started to breathe deeply. I had a bad feeling about this. And when I asked him what was wrong, Officer Ahmed replied,
"You will not be allowed entry into Qatar."
I felt a bit numb and I heard myself ask why. My voice sounded disembodied, as if it were someone else speaking far away. He explained that he could not find my GCC sponsor on their system… basically it seemed like my school didn’t exist! As if watching myself in a movie, I saw myself looking stunned and within a split second I was crying; not just tears rolling down my cheeks but loud, noisy, hiccuping bawls which was drawing attention from everyone in the long queue behind me. This was the only strategy I could think of at the time: damsel in distress. It worked for other women all the time so this time I was going to make it work for me.
Ahmed called over his friends, Abdullah and Abdul Aziz ( I assume) and a vociferous discussion took place in Arabic while all the people in the queue behind me looked on. Their discussion wasn’t loud enough to drown out my wailing though; I was in it to win it! Suddenly Abdul Aziz took the credit card that was in my fingers, swiped it and I entered my pin. “Yalla habibti, yalla!”, Abdullah practically shouted at me, furiously gesturing for me to go through the open gates and hurry up about it too. The tears magically stopped and I said, “Shukran” as I sailed past with a smile. Women of the world, why did no one tell me about the magical effect that crying has on men? I can’t wait to try it out again!
Meerkat met me in arrivals and after recounting my traumatic success story, my weekend in Qatar began!
Part 1: The camel races
On Friday morning, we headed out bright and early to the Camel Race track. We had no idea if there would be a race or even any camels around but it wasn’t far away so we went to try our luck. What a surprise to see camels everywhere in the nearby vicinity of the track! It started off with camels crossing the road to a police man telling us we could drive alongside the track and cheer the camels on.
With my body in the car and my head out the sunroof, it was heady experience watching the camels run, breathing in the animal smells and the feeling the bright desert sun on my face. I had one of those moments- ‘HEY! I’m in the Middle East!”
Part 2: Art, cityscapes and skylines
It seems like every city worth its salt has a lovely corniche (except Kuwait which in itself is a statement). A corniche is basically a coastal road and in the Gulf it seems to indicate a waterfront promenade. Doha’s corniche offers stunning views over the city skyline and when you chase it up with a scoop of mango ice cream, it’s a brilliant place to hang out, take pictures and people watch.
The corniche starts at The Museum of Islamic Art and I know you’re thinking that museums are BORING and I’m only mentioning it because I’m a teacher but I’m not a museum buff either. However, this one is worth a visit.
From the architecture to the exhibits, there is something for everyone. Meerkat and I were discussing how Arabic script makes everything good… try writing English words on tiles and suddenly it’s not that pretty or impressive.
The Muhammd Ali exhibit was a highlight… again, I’m not into boxing but the they had some cool artefacts like his boxing gloves, vintage tickets and even the letter he wrote to the US government asking to be exempted from the Vietnam war.
Part 3: Supper at the souk
When Meerkat said we would head to the souk in the evening, my heart sang… who doesn’t love a good souk?! And Souk Waqif (which is is within walking distance of the Museum of Islamic Art) did not disappoint. In fact… I think I have a new favourite market.
Look at these gorgeous treasures I found:
The atmosphere is electric and there was an eclectic mix of Arabs and non Arabs enjoying the balmy evening out. From the dancing Turkish ice cream vendors to the sweet smell of watermelon shisha wafting through air… again I had that heady thought, “I’m in the Middle East!” The best thing about this souk- the vendors aren’t aggressive; they don’t actively tout their goods, call you into their stores or generally harass you in any way. As a female, I always enjoy being left alone to browse. After meeting up with the friends Meerkat invited along, we decided to eat.
Dinner was a treat at a Moroccan restaurant called Tajeen. We procured a table on the rooftop terrace and while enjoying the delicious food, a fireworks display started up in the sky above us. We had a beautiful view and even though we were not sure why it was happening, we enjoyed it thoroughly. Thank you for that little surprise Doha!
Part 4: Katara
I had an afternoon flight back to Kuwait so I only had a morning left in Qatar. We headed out to a place called Katara which is kind of like a cultural village and we walked around for a little while, enjoying the views of gorgeous architecture, azure waters and other early morning strollers. We enjoyed some mid morning milkshakes and mocktails before I had to bid a regretful farewell to the lively city of Doha!
Thankfully I made it out of Qatar with no issues at immigration and I’m back in chilly Kuwait!
Honestly, I could’ve spent another day or two in Qatar… there were still a few things I wanted to do and see. I really did not expect to enjoy Qatar as much as I did! What strikes me as interesting about Qatar is that the government is so focused on the progression of the country; from the new underground railway being built to the free attractions that are accessible to all, its evident that the Qatari government wants people to love their country. Qatar is also green, with plants and parks in different areas which makes for a complete change from dusty, brown Kuwait.
Oh and did I mention how clean it is? It reminded me of Singapore in that respect. Yes you can buy alcohol in Qatar (from one or two places) even though people seem more conservative there (an interesting conundrum). The stores close at 11:30-14:00 on a Friday morning for prayers (unlike in Kuwait) and the people- both expats and Qataris- dress a lot more conservatively. However, nobody bothered Meerkat and I as we explored the city other than a few Arab girls who kept turning back to gaze at his handsome face even after they had walked past.
Towards the latter part of 2016, Qatar Airways began offering a free 96 hour visit visa for people traveling via Qatar airways that have layovers of over 5 hours in Doha. This is a great way to explore Doha, and get a real taste of a country in the Middle East. Every time I hear a person tell me about how great life in the Gulf must be, based on their few days spent in the theme parks of Dubai, I feel like pulling my hair out. Soulless skyscrapers, alcohol fueled brunches and glitzy nightclubs are NOT what the Middle East is about. Visit Qatar, Oman or even Kuwait for a real taste of life in the Gulf; one of Arabian hospitality, authentic architecture and Islamic culture personified