This past weekend I decided to take a break from the monotony of sweating it out by the pool every afternoon with a long weekend in Doha, Qatar. Not really knowing much beyond how to drive there, I didn’t anticipate anything extraordinary. That’s about what I got.
Qatar (pronounced similar to guitar, not cutter or kah-tarh) is a small peninsula, about 4/5ths the size of Connecticut, that juts almost perpendicularly from the western coast of Saudi into the Arabian Gulf. Being a Gulf State, it shares just about everything in common with Saudi, from language, to food, to the ultraorthodox Wahabi sect of Islam, but it has a considerably more liberal stance on most daily aspects of life. Women are not required to wear an abaya, shops stay open through prayer, and alcohol and pork are allowed, albeit with restrictions. Much like Bahrain, Qatar is progressing towards modernity, but it is still very much a conservative Muslim nation. The capital, Doha, sits on the northwestern coast, about an hour’s drive from the border. My trip took me diagonally across much of the peninsula, which aside from the occasional rocky outcropping, was the same expanse of desert crisscrossed with industrial power lines, unkempt lengths of (unnecessary) barbwire fencing, natural gas pipelines, and the occasional camel.
Outside of major sporting events or international conferences there really isn’t much to do in Doha. It does make for a nice introduction into Arab culture and allows for a relatively accurate look into life inside a strict Islamic world, but seeing as I live with that every day I really didn’t care to spend my time fraternizing with the locals. Even if that wasn’t the case, the vast majority of the population of Doha, and all of Qatar for that matter, isn’t even Qatari. Expatriates from just about every corner of the globe outnumber Qataris almost 2 to 1. My trip was to center primarily around eating decent food paired with legally purchased (and professionally made) alcoholic drinks, and although I wasn’t really sure what any of that was certain to look like, my hope was, with any luck, that it would involve pork.
Expats everywhere, not a Qatari to be seen.
Drinking in Qatar is considerably more regulating than other more liberal areas in the Gulf. Bars are the only establishments allowed to serve alcohol, and they are only legally allowed to be within the confines of a hotel. Drinking any alcohol outside of these establishments is strictly prohibited, and the penalties for consuming in public or driving while intoxicated are rather harsh (mandatory prison sentences and, eventually, deportation). There happens to be one liquor store on the outskirts of Doha which will supply any non-Muslim resident a quota of alcohol based on their monthly income. I usually get a kick out of seeking out and patronizing even the sketchiest of establishments, but sometimes the effort just isn’t worth the reward.
The law also stipulates that bars are only allowed to serve hotel patrons or those who have purchased ‘memberships,’ though they seemed to be rather lenient when it came to enforcing this particular statute. To gain entry into any bar, which are all located behind a maze of hallways or an unassuming elevator ride, you must show your passport and have it scanned into a computer database. Once inside, it’s just like any other hotel bar filled with loud TVs, obnoxious businessmen, overpriced drinks, and an overwhelmingly high percentage of women trying to advertise their membership in the world’s oldest profession (if there are any women in the bar to begin with).
Bars also don’t open until 5pm or later, which originally had me a bit concerned that I might get a little bored during the afternoon, but, thankfully, that wasn’t the case. I borrowed a guidebook of the Arabian Peninsula from Girl before she left for her summer holiday, and, aside from providing an unprecedented amount of outdated and impractical information, it contained a section about the supposedly world renowned Museum of Islamic Art. I like museums, I like history, and I’m usually pretty content with even the most disappointing of exhibits, so I decided to spend some time there. I couldn’t find any information about its hours of operation, so to play it safe I spent a few hours in Souq Waqif in hopes that the museum would open in the late afternoon.
I normally don’t enjoy being surrounded by people, and I don’t especially like being hot, which means an open air marketplace filled with pushy merchants in the middle of the Arabian summer (Doha is a little warmer than Dammam, with average temperatures around 115 this time of year) isn’t usually how I would choose to spend my time. I do, however, enjoy people watching, and pink-skinned tourists sweating it out trying to haggle for overpriced trinkets makes for decent lunch hour entertainment. I sat outside under the awning of a decently priced Moroccan restaurant enjoying the sights with several glasses of lemon mint and a curiously cinnamony lamb tanjin.
In the heat of the late afternoon I made my way to the museum. Unassuming from the outside, it is quite the magnificent building once inside. Filled with all types of objects and artifacts from the entire geographic and chronologic scope of Islam, it far outperformed my expectations. As with any great museum, it was hard to absorb everything, and even harder to do adequate justice in words, but it easily became the highlight of my trip. I wouldn’t say that it would be enough to bring me back on another trip, but if I do ever find myself in Doha with a few hours to kill, I know where I’ll spend it. Provided, of course, the bars aren’t open.
Overall, Doha ended up being about what I expected. Its hard to justify spending the time to drive there (cost wasn’t an issue as I spent all of $20 on gas) when its just as easy to drive to Bahrain for a beer. I’m sure in a different, cooler, time of year with a group of people, or a legitimate reason for going, Qatar would be a great vacation destination, and I would encourage it as a viable option instead of Dubai for those who aren’t interested in the everyone-pretends-to-be-rich party scene.
Check that off the list.