Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass: Doha

After a full day in Kuwait we finally made it to Qatar, were briefed in, and given our room assignments. The E-7’s and above were boarded in a large warehouse-like building with numerous sub-structures inside, some of which were for various officer ranks, some for E-7’s and E-8’s, and some for females of various ranks. Why they put them in the same building with us is unknown; perhaps they feel that they can trust E-7’s and above to behave themselves with more decorum.

It seems to work.

The people who run this site have numerous things that people can do for entertainment and adventure. The main structure, another large warehouse structure, unremarkable from the outside, contains several bar-type establishments for those on pass here to secure their three alcoholic beverage allotment per day. There is a bowling alley, a stage, numerous tables, a computer lab with internet access, a wireless network of dubious quality, a coffee shop, and the numerous support offices for those who administer the programs here. Elsewhere there are a couple of gyms, another coffee shop, and even a Chili’s restaurant.

If you arrive after 2200, your next day is “Day Zero.” It does not count against your pass time here. We arrived at about 2230 and received this benefit. The next day was spent sleeping late, exploring our immediate surroundings, and signing up for excursions the next day. Each day there is an opportunity to sign up for one of the various excursions that are available. There are some which are very popular, and some which are not necessarily popular.

I signed up for the Doha City Tour, which took us to downtown Doha and the surrounding area. It is a bus tour with numerous stops.

Upon leaving the American base, we traveled down roads which, other than the international-style signs, could be in any city in the United States. The Qatari’s are very fond of traffic roundabouts. Our tour guide, a Sri Lankan, sat in the front of the bus with a microphone and gave us little tidbits of information about various locations of interest.

Doha is competing for the honor of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. They are building numerous venues for the games and have even constructed the world’s highest Olympic flame, an enormous structure which will burn tons of the natural gas which Qatar finds itself the proud owner-exporter of.

We drive across the flat desert towards a city that rises in the distance; Doha. The desert is dotted with small bushy plants and not much else. The vehicles are mostly SUV’s. The Qatari’s obviously have money. As we go, some of my compatriots tell me about what the leadership structure is in Qatar, and the bus driver shows pictures of the Emir, his son who will become the next Emir, and the Emir’s wife, mother of the future Emir.

It turns out that you cannot do much of anything in Qatar without the sponsorship of one of the royal family. It’s a social structure that seems to work quite well for them. There is new construction everywhere, and many of the new houses are, by American standards, quite large. The Arab influence is obvious in their architecture, but there seem to be many home furnishing shops that claim to be American.

Qatari streets are lined with the same store front type shops that line the streets in Afghanistan, but they are obviously wealthier, and I have yet to see a bullet hole in anything here. The streets here have an air of normalcy. People are just going about their daily lives. An impression began to grow.

This is what Afghanistan could be like with some stability and time to grow. It’s not America; it is a modern Arab country. Afghans are not Arabs, but they are more similar to Arabs than they will ever be to Americans. The same types of structures are visible here; walled family compounds surround the houses, storefronts filled with small shops abound.

Most of the workers in Qatar are expatriates. There are a great number of Filipinos here, doing the jobs that Qatari’s do not want to do. Qatari’s walk the streets in immaculate white robes, their heads covered in Arab fashion.

Our first stop is a camel market. I’ve seen plenty of camels in Afghanistan, so I am not amazed; but there are some interesting things about the culture of camels in Qatar. Camel racing is a big sport here. I also learned some interesting things about camels and Arabian horses.

One thing that I learned is that camels have a pretty long life span; they can live to be 60 years old, from what the tour guide told us. Impressive for animals that live such difficult lives. We saw a baby camel that was still suckling. That was cute. Then the sound of a screaming camel split the air. Someone had bought a camel and was trying to load it into the back of a small pickup truck.

The caterwauling juvenile camel is bellowing, mouth wide open, as the handlers try to maneuver it into the pickup. A second juvenile becomes agitated and bolts through the open gate, galloping down the street with a Qatari in pursuit. Small comedy.

The shrieking camel is finally wrestled into the bed of the truck, kneeling. Up the road comes the other camel, bellowing in protest as he is shoved by the Qatari handler, who is steering the camel with its tail. He finally shoves the camel back into the pen and the job is done.

It is also time for us to leave.

Our second stop is a traditional market, built in traditional style and appearing almost like an old Arabian fort. The ceilings show the slender timbers overlaid with woven palm fronds, very similar to the ceiling or roof construction in Afghan structures. There are a myriad of shops, selling everything from cloth to watches to falcons.

The falconry is of particular interest to us. It is apparently a huge sport here. We should export our pigeons to Qatar. I’m sure that they would enjoy them. The strange thing is that pigeons are very popular pets in Afghanistan. Perhaps a trading relationship could develop.

The falcons sit on low stool-like furniture with Astroturf tops, their heads covered with leather hoods. One small falcon sits on his low perch, tethered but not hooded, and eyes us with obvious interest.

All of the accoutrements of falconry surround us on the walls. A manikin, dressed in traditional garb, stands with a stuffed falcon perched on a leather glove. One of the other touring Americans and I walk to the other side of the store and are confronted with various bird parts drying; a taxidermist’s work in progress.

“Are those falcons?” he asks.

“Those are the game birds,” I reply, “Falcons hunt other birds.” He is surprised.

We leave the shop and I look up and down the street. There are a lot of foreign tourists here. Some are obviously European. Two women pass, speaking German. A British family with small children walks by with a stroller. Qatari men stroll towards a café, long white robes proclaiming their heritage. Qatari women in the traditional black burqa-like covering go about their business.

The most obvious difference between the Afghan burqa and the coverings found here is that the Afghan burqa is normally a robin’s egg blue garment with a mesh screen covering the eyes. Here the face is covered with a thin black veil held in place by a narrow strip of cloth that suspends it from the headpiece and runs directly between the eyes, framing the mascara-rimmed eyes of the woman underneath behind the veil. Most of the eyes that are caught by my fleeting glance (it is more than impolite to stare) are absolutely beautiful and mysterious.

The dozens of shops each contain items of interest, but to enter one is often to invite a very focused sales approach. I need AA batteries, for the ones in my camera have decided to expire at this point. Many Qatari’s speak English, and I am directed into a small restaurant. They sell me a four-pack of batteries for $2.00 and I quickly replace the batteries in my camera to discover that the new batteries won’t work, either.

I finally discover a camera shop that has good batteries and another $2.00 secures me a single set of functional batteries, and I set about taking pictures of the marketplace, careful not to directly focus on a particular individual. They are funny about photography here.

A shopkeeper draws me into his shop and shows me various items made of cloth. I had determined not to buy anything today, but I do make a purchase. I am running short on time, so I head back to where the buses are parked and take pictures of the architecture in the area, including a very old fort that is being restored.

We load back up on the bus and head for our next destination, which is the jewelry market. It wasn’t the first thing that I had thought about when I signed up for the tour, but I cautiously enter the first shop, trying to be invisible.

“You want to look at gold?” Busted. I have failed in my efforts at invisibility and am now a sales target. Crap.

I survive the assault unscathed.

The jewelry prices in Qatar are amazing, though.

We have lots of time in the jewelry market, and then finally move on to one of the highlights of the tour; lunch in a Qatari restaurant. It is very good; different, but good.

Following the meal we load back on the bus and head downtown. The thing that strikes me about being downtown was that I have never seen more 45-story buildings under construction at the same time in my life. Usually, there may be one at a time. There must be at least 10 that are under active construction.

An interesting factoid: Qatar and Dubai currently possess 80% of the world’s large construction cranes.

Okay, so it wasn’t that interesting, but it is an illustration of what I was talking about… the fact that there is so much construction going on in Qatar. Of course, the number of tall buildings being built in downtown Doha is amazing, but so are their designs. It seems that all of the world’s fugitive architects have found work in Doha. There are very few simple designs here. Dramatic curves, fins, a giant golden ball wedged between two golden towers thirty stories off the ground… the Arabs obviously prefer bold statements in their architecture.

Our destination is the City Center Mall. I’ve never been to the Mall of America, but this place is the largest mall that I’ve ever been to. Now granted, I’m not a mall guy, but this place is fascinating for several reasons. First, I’ve never seen a slanted people mover before. This is a contraption similar to the people movers seen in American airports, but they went from one floor to another. The man in front of me has a shopping cart.

There are several atriums, and other than the men and women dressed in traditional Arab garb, you could have dropped this mall into any suburban American venue and the local residents would be thrilled.

I sit in a coffee shop and sipped an excellent cup of coffee served by a Romanian waitress as I listen to Chaplain Chopper explain his decision to stop flying helicopters for the Marines and become a chaplain. It could have been the coffee shop in any Barnes & Nobles, but we are surrounded by men in dresses reading papers in Arabic.

Many of the signs in Qatar are in English; not a mixture of Arabic and English like their traffic signs, but just English.

We gather at the predetermined time back at the buses and head back to As Sayliyah.

Qatar is certainly an example of an affluent Islamic society with a degree of tolerance for outsiders and other religions. The law is definitely based on Sharia, Koranic law, but other than some specific quirks (don’t spit,) one doesn’t feel particularly constrained. Other than the spitting thing, and a little touchiness about photography (don’t photograph anyone without their permission and don’t photograph the flag,) there doesn’t seem to be anything prohibited that a normal person would really want to do; except wear shorts.

After an uneventful but informative trip back to the base, we all arrive in time to go to the excellent chow hall for a good meal. It was a pretty good time for $30.00.

1 comment:

  1. I have no comment to make other than thanks for sharing. You write very well. I think (if I were kidnapped, blindfolded and transported to Qatar) I'd actually be able to say after a few minutes exploration, "Oh, I must be in Doha."


All comments will be moderated due to spamming of old posts.