Qatar by Irene Butler
Pix by Rick
Rick and I trekked through the desert without water; my parched tongue felt double its size and my voice was reduced to a croak….okay, we were really walking along Al Corniche Street in Doha, the capital of Qatar – but the remaining detail is true. We had started out from the Fuda Hotel to walk the seaside promenade, expecting “this” corniche to be like the one in Muscat (Oman), lined with sidewalk cafes and shops. NOT!
This promenade is attractively dotted with plants, trees and some wonderful sculptures. On one side of its gigantic U-shaped street is the shimmering blue waters of the Gulf. On the other side are six lanes of zooming traffic. We kept our eyes peeled for anything across this roaring highway that resembled a place to buy water – or better yet, a café for a coffee and water, as our fine breakfast at the Fuda (consisting of an omelette, toast and mango juice) was minus our usual morning caffeine fix. Alas, we only saw what appeared to be apartment and office buildings.
We trekked onward towards the gleaming towers of glass and steel at the far end of the corniche. The fury of sky-scrapers has not escaped this small country. Two hours later we neared these lofty edifices, noting some were completed offices of large companies and others were still under construction – with nary a watering hole in sight.
We decided to go inward from these new structures. Eureka! A Mall! After an initial guzzle of a two litre bottle of H2O, we nestled down in soft armchairs at Costa Coffee for two jumbo-sized silky-smooth cappuccinos…life was good. The City Centre-Doha Mall, like malls in the United Arab Emirates, was geared towards entertainment as well as to dedicated shoppers. It boasts a large ice skating rink, bowling alleys, and rock climbing walls.
“Our” market delight in these Arabian Peninsula countries are the souqs
– and Qatar’s Waqif Souq is the “ultimate souq”. It’s been around since the days when Bedouin nomads traded goats, sheep and wool for essential items. Restorations have not changed the maze of passageways with mud rendered walls and wood beamed ceilings. There are sections for spices, perfumes, pots and pans, plastic everything, aquarium fishes, birds, puppies, bunnies and baby chicks.
We had looked for sheesha cafes in the United Arab Emirates and in Oman – to no avail. In Doha they are a ubiquitous item. The Waqif Souq is full of restaurants and cafes with customers puffing their choice of flavoured tobacco through bubbling water pipes. Sweet scents, such as mint, apple, strawberry and rose permeate the air.
The boys at the Café Tasse invited us out back of the café where a few dozen pipes are made ready for customers. We were to learn the “ins” and “outs” of sheesha. Basically the “out” comes first, with the customer blowing into the pipe to clear any residue. Then the customer inhales. The air is pulled through burning charcoal and into the bowl holding the tobacco. The hot air vaporizes the tobacco, producing smoke, which is filtered thru the water in the bottom of the apparatus, producing bubbles in the water and the gurgling sound, culminating in a cooling hit of nicotine.
Hussein demonstrated first, then Askaf and Mohammed. Billows of
smoke rose into the air. Rick was next. With my camera aimed, I waited for a billow…. well, he was trying…ahhh, at last, a pouf – way to go Rick!
Upon checking our “to do” list for Qatar, camel races came to the forefront, which seemingly was not going to happen as not even the tour offices knew of when the races would be held. We were told to check the newspaper daily, as the announcement of a race would be in the sports section a day or so prior to the race. Another key choice for us was to see the unusual desert landscapes out of the city.
It was Jerry to the rescue! After our delightful day with Jerry in Oman, he went back to Qatar where he was currently working. We had tentative plans to meet again. He called announcing he had some time off work and invited us to go see the unique limestone formations at Bir Zekreet, called “desert mushrooms”.
By late that afternoon we were breezing along into the interior. Our first stop was…are you ready… Al-Shahaniya, the famed camel race track – which coincidentally was on our way to Bir Zekreet. Countless camels were everywhere, in compounds across the road from the track, and strings of camels crossing the highway in both directions bringing traffic to a halt. We pulled into the race track parking lot and crossed the twenty or so metres beside the viewing stands to the track. Practicing camels clumped in bunches of between 10 and 20 raced by stirring up clouds of dust. Some of the jockeys bouncing along on an adult camel also held the reins of a young camel with no rider, no doubt a learning process for the gangly young’un.
After we got our fill of this “sport of sheikhs” we barrelled south again
and just made it to Bir Zekreet before sunset. The fading light cast an eerie glow over the weirdly spectacular “mushrooms”, the result of winds that had whittled away the softer sedimentary rock leaving pillars below large intact tops – a geography lesson of desert formation.
As the red disc fell behind the horizon we still proceeded south to the town of Dukhan, the location of a massive natural gas plant and huge compound for employees with great looking apartment accommodations, and shopping and restaurant amenities. Qatar is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. Qatar is also one of the fastest growing world economies, with an extremely high per capita income. This politically stable Kingdom is ruled by the popular emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a family which has been in power since the mid-18th century.
Back in Doha, Jerry suggested a stop at Villagio Mall, located between the Hyatt and the amazing complex of stadiums of Sport City, home of the 2006 Asian Games which were the largest ever held. We saw first hand evidence of the wealth of this small peninsula. Being Friday evening, the first day of their weekend, the mall was wall-to-wall with zealous shoppers, and families out to be entertained with a gondola ride along the faux-Venetian canal running through the middle of the extra-wide corridors sided by designer fashion stores, and every other kind of store imaginable. The extensive food court looks onto an ice rink, with a hockey game in progress. The players were aged from between 12 and 15, what we in Canada term as “Bantom”. Their skating finesse and puck-handling was top notch.
It was onto Waqif Souq for a superb supper at an Iraqi Restaurant; chicken kabobs, scrumptious khubz (flat bread) and the most flavourful hummus. We then waddled over to an outdoor café and somehow still found room for what is known as a Qatari cocktail – a decadent strawberry/mango milkshake. A great finish!
The next day we ventured to the Museum of Islamic Art. This imposing
structure, which reflects the essence of Islam, was designed by I.M. Pei, famous for his Pyramid in Le Louvre. As well as the stunning architecture, the exhibits of costumes, calligraphy, antiques, jewellery and pottery are displayed with elaborate casings and dynamic lighting, making this a photographer’s dream. Rick keenly clicked away, and our intended hour here turned into several.
The owner of the Fuda Hotel offered to drive us to the airport for our flight to Bahrain the following morning. The Fuda turned out to be a good choice, with its distinctive new paint job in psychedelic colours – fiery red reception area, electric teal hallways, and our marigold yellow room. Breakfast was a surprise every morning and was brought to our room at our requested time, free wireless internet, friendly attentive staff, all for a budget price.
Our time in Qatar had gone by in a flash, which we attribute to our total enjoyment of each and every day.
Ma’ salamah (Goodbye) for now,
As-salaam Alaykum (Peace be with you),
Irene & Rick