Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Direct to you

I got around to exploring Blogger settings and found the function which allows me to send each new post to selected email addresses - only a maximum of ten, however. So if this pops up in your mailbox, do please consider yourself a specially-favoured distributor of my deathless ramblings, and forward it on to anyone who may be interested. I know the blog is essentially a vanity-publishing medium, but it's nice to think there is a readership out there; hard to gauge with the minimal feedback I get. If on the other hand you are reading this without having received an email, it is probably because I know you already check it out regularly via RSS feed or similar, so you in turn can rest assured that I hold your ongoing readership in special esteem.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Towns and Dunes

It's not that Doha is all solid residential buildup, with the occasional green park, such as we are used to seeing in temperate-zone cities. The desert is part of this town. Even a middle class neighbourhood like this one (typical of Madinat Khalifa North, just across the highway from our apartments, and of most of the city) has open spaces like this, just dust between the perimeter roads.

There is plenty of evidence of a greening program of sorts, with many public areas and roadsides in the process of being landscaped. You see them at various stages, from the lush lawns and flower beds of the Corniche (now the hot weather is here I wouldn't dismiss the idea of taking the job of watering them all day long with handheld hose - even for Indian labourer's wages - better than digging up the roads for sure), to half planted, to laid out but bare except for the irrigation tubing (they have that too, in for-Africa quantities - there is half an acre of black spaghetti lying in the otherwise empty V-shaped beds of the intersection borders opposite our front door, with nothing to do but soak up the UV rays).

And a lot of Doha looks like this: acres of idle land, awaiting maybe the greening, but more likely the construction of more same-same apartment complexes like the ones in the background.

Or like this: there are similar mini-deserts by the dozen quite close in to the city centre, sometimes with tent encampments. They may be earmarked for new commercial or public infrastructure projects, or another road interchange, having been cleared of old unwanted buildings; or equally likely, are just part of the piecemeal development pattern, just not built on yet. Travel another two or three kms outwards and more open space is visible, to the point where you think you have left town; then two roundabouts later, you are back in the thick of urban landscape which doesn't let up all the way back to the city centre. It's Tardis plus Looking-Glass - start off in the opposite direction and you just may find yourself where you were looking to end up; but turn off the main road and there are far too many streets to fit (like the souqs).

Sooner or later you need to really get out into the desert proper for a look. On this initial shortish stay, we may not get time to do the standard experiences, e.g. dune bashing in a 4wd (for hardy thrillseekers only, we are told) or a guided overnight camp (more suitable for gentle aesthetes like us maybe, but with scorpions if you're lucky). But with a car on tap, a tiki-tour of the hinterland demands to be undertaken before it gets way too hot. As already noted, there isn't a huge amount of Qatar to be explored - horizontally it's about 160km by 70km, vertically a dizzy 100metres at most. But the guidebooks recommend some interesting historical sites for a visit, and the roads are there to be driven on, eh.

So one Friday morning, Angela and Nancy and I set off northwards to look for various forts and check out the fishing port of Al Khor, one of Doha's larger satellite towns, a mere 40km away. We took the alternative seaward main road rather than Highway 1 which starts at Al Gharrafa overpass; the latter is full of trucks (although fewer on a Friday) and treacherously potholed. Highway 1A is in fact a superb and empty four-lane motorway, with copious signage which can still leave the novice left-hand-drive traveller confused as to which slip road to take (in the hope of finding one of those forts - must be around here somewhere, is that it over there? - no, that's a power substation...), and consequently heading back to town on occasions.

However, we did manage to stumble upon the sleepy coastal town of Simaisma, half way to Al Khor. It hasn't got much of a beach,

but people can be seen wading the shallows (possibly harvesting kaimoana?)

and there is a fishing pier

with associated friendly fishermen

though local youth were also on hand to break the monotony if required, with Friday-afternoon recreational activities

and associated soundtrack (silencers optional).

Onward to Al Khor, which turns out to be pretty much a mini-Doha (just no skyscrapers). We found roundabouts and dual carriageways galore, the usual jumble of shops in the main street, a posh resort compound, a mini-corniche, and a road leading to a massive residential project. There is also a businesslike fishing port with rows of pretty dhows

and stacks of lobster traps.

It was only right to check out the local produce; the Pearl of Beirut is recommended in Lonely Planet, and there were actually some diners there already. It advertises itself as providing many different national cuisines (if you like a curry you'll have plenty of choice) but the grilled hamour (popular local fish) with salad was a tasty bargain.

Then a brief circuit of the town revealed some unusual architectural detail, such as we haven't seen in Doha.
This guy has brought the Villagio mall ambience outdoors and out of town, a welcome relief from the universal muted-sand-dune tones nearly all houses are painted;

and this one has managed to greatly extend the possibilities of decorative masonry

with tasteful water feature

and a built-in majlis too.

Remember, it's Friday afternoon: back in downtown Al Khor, the subcontinental bachelors are starting to gather in the streets

so we hightailed outta there and headed west, hoping to find the popular Town Gardens, which people said were worth a visit. Ten km out of town, we had sort of given up - then there was the turnoff.

Al Khor Public Gardens are indeed worth the trip. It's a park, folks; several hectares of neatly landscaped and moderately-well-cared-for greenery out in the middle of the desert, and for once Indians are allowed in at the same time as families. These guys were celebrating something, with a ghetto blaster playing their sort of music, and the man in white leading the dancing. We wanted to join in, but the disapproving gaze of an elderly Arab gentleman chaperoning three respectably abaya-clad teenage girls (who for their part thought it was gigglingly funny) reminded us that ladies don't dance in public here. Probably. Sometimes it's hard to gauge the appropriate degree of respect for tradition, or whether in fact the more liberal side of Qatar's multicultural experiment is applicable. Here, probably not.

The Gardens are very popular; people come from all over for a picnic in the shady surroundings (it's well for the blase kiwi expat to remember that though it may be a bit dry and tatty by home standards, this really is a green oasis amid the endless sandy rubble, and for a local, something really special). These friendly Jordanians turned out to be neighbours of ours from Madinat Khalifa South; we had a good chinwag about life in Qatar

and admired their babies, while another group of Indians played cricket in the background.

Then, "Please excuse, it is time to pray", and out came their mats and one of them led the chanting; and it was time for our tea, so we said ma'a al salaama and made our way back to the car, past this family making full use of the trampoline

while their menfolk gathered elsewhere for men's business.

We hit the road home via Highway 1 this time, where giant potholes threatened to destroy the front suspension as we wove our way through deviations past half-built flyovers, and the usual speedsters came flashing and beeping through. We never found any forts - we should have been looking off highway 1, not 1A, but it was too late in the day by then.

Later in the week I set off alone (with water bottle) on my planned expedition to find the Roof of Qatar - possibly called Al Jaouw al Ramli at 103metres altitude, somewhere towards the Saudi border (according to the few spot heights on my unreliable 2002 map). First stop Al Wakra, where Angela teaches, a semi-industrial town only 20km south of Doha, somewhat bigger than Al Khor, and also featuring a fishing port as well as a desalination plant, a half-finished Heritage Village, and its best-kept secret, a pleasantly swimmable beach.

These attractions could wait for another day when we could explore the town together, and I pressed on to Messaieed, another 20km south and a major centre of heavy industry. Finding only security gates and trucking depots in two circuits of the place (there is a town centre hidden somewhere, but the omens are not good that it would be in any way interesting), I continued southwards, following signs to "Beach" (which eventually turned out to be the exclusive Sealine Resort at the end of the road - also to be saved up for another day when we can treat ourselves to the facilities).

A further 10km of trucks and roadworks out of Messaieed towards the resort, this is the stirring sight that heaves into view round the shoulder of a sand dune. This is the heart of the petroleum processing industry, with intallations and complexes all the way to the horizon on one side of the road, and more of those monster flame-off towers presiding like Sauron over the no-nonsense scene.

On the other side it's wall-to-wall desert. The Qatari desert is mainly not your classic Lawrence-of-Arabia dune panorama, just flat and rubbly, but in this corner of the country there is a good crop of sandy rollers. Trudging up this 50metre high one near the resort was quite enough in my semi-unfit state (i.e. somewhat less fit than un-), but worth it for the view to the coast. In the foreground, as you can see, is a typical venue for 4wd mayhem - the dune cuts away at 45 degrees or steeper to the hard flat below, handy for tumbling vehicles to come to rest after overcooking a slalom, or simply having a head-on smash, as can be seen on YouTube.

Looking landwards, the other half of the dune-bashing industry is visible: echelons of tent-based quad bike hire operators (I counted 17 side by side along about 2km of the road), each with 20 or more rides neatly lined up awaiting the weekend or a tour operator.

You can see some of them in this video, which also gives some idea of the diversity of the landscape.

Onward ever higher! - this entailed striking out westward along the truck route connecting Mesaieed to the main road between Doha and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And I mean trucks: a solid queue of the buggers at 50kph in both directions for 30km of mainly single carriageway (you soon learn to take your chances and make the most of any gap in the no-overtaking lines).

At last the main highway - all eight lanes of it, all the way to the border, and of course hardly a truck in sight. I got quite excited when I saw this, an actual hill (sorry, outcrop then, all right?). But hardly qualifying as the sort of Height I was looking for.

With all the time spent following dunes and ascending queues of trucks, there wasn't time to get close to Al Jaow Al Ramli or whatever it's called, but I suspect we can just see it 20km away, between the power lines in this suitably enhanced photo. Good enough for me anyway.

The road skirts the coast as you near the border, but you can't get to the beach. Reading the signs on the way back, I realised that there is a whole new road, to Dukhan on the west coast, that doesn't feature at all on my map, so I checked it out. Sorry, no photos, chaps: it's a pristine and completely empty 50km of four-laner through 100% Qatar Petroleum territory, with drilling rigs, pipelines, more flame towers and other installations every few km, and frequent monster hoardings reminding the traveller to obey detailed regulations including in big letters, Photography and Videography Prohibited. OK then, not worth the risk.

The QP monopoly extends even to Dukhan township - you can't get in without permission from a resident. They say it has a nice beach and a peculiar golf course (20 holes, sand-and-0il surface - bring your own tee-off mat) but they will have to wait until we know somebody. The final leg back to Doha is on a newly-upgraded four-lane road that takes us past the camel racing track and the Sheikh's museum, and suddenly we are back in civilisation.

The top end of the country still awaits exploration - can it be any different? There are apparently some good accessible beaches north of Dukhan - maybe we will make it, but probably not now it's really hot. We did make it back to Al Wakra a week or two later for an afternoon in the sun and sea breeze. The dhow wharf is more picturesque than Al Khor.

There are some rather pretty ones set up for cruising rather than fishing;

All of them feature a reminder of why it's called the poop deck (is that true?).

Then we headed for the almost deserted beach - just a few local families, wives braving the water in full abaya and hijab while the men just wore shorts.

It's knee deep, clean, pleasantly warm, and with the desalination plant just round the corner, really buoyant - just don't get any up your nose. Come on in everyone!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Two Museums

Qatar's rush towards the future is not entirely at the expense of ignoring its heritage. It might be hard to spot much history on the daily mad dash round town, stampeding from one roundabout or half-finished flyover to the next with all the Mercedes, Chevs and assorted SUVs; it's true that everywhere you look, flash new buildings (many also half-finished) are already coated with the dust from old ones being torn down to make way for more.

But a sense of history remains in lovingly re-created sites like Souq Waqif (a sort of interactive museum in its own way), and in preserved buildings like the old Emiri palace, built in 1901, which houses the Qatar National Museum. This is currently closed for restoration, but there are plenty more museums in Doha which are open for business and recommended to tourists. The nearest to us is the Weaponry Museum a few blocks away from the apartments, near the Al Ali souq (the one with all the tailors), for which you need to make an appointment to visit and obtain a letter of authority from the Department of Museums (and maybe have a particular interest in weaponry) - but we really ought to get around to it.

However, we have managed to visit the two most famous ones: the stunning new Museum of Islamic Art on the
Corniche, opened only last November (see below), and the celebrated private museum of Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim al Thani, 30km out on the Dukhan road, not far from the camel racing track. This also requires an appointment (and then to convince the guy on the gate that you are genuine), but we were lucky to be invited on the spur of the moment one Saturday morning to join our neighbours Paula and Peter who had already sorted out the formalities. We hurriedly dressed up nice and jumped in the car, were at the gate by 10am, and were waved through with minimum fuss, unlike the carload of Indian guys in front of us - we assume they forgot to make an appointment.

The estate is about half a km off the highway. We drive in past a building with a large fenced yard full of iconic vehicles like Manila jeepneys and highly decorated Pakistani trucks, then an artificial lake with a dhow moored in the middle, and round to the front door where the manager comes out to meet us. This picture is actually another front door of another building (which you see half of here), but it looks similar. The main building is similarly fortress-like, and even bigger - at least 150 metres long.

The Sheikh's son, Sheikh Mohammed, isn't at the door when we arrive, but soon arrives in the first hall we are taken into; we are introduced and he then proceeds to give us the full guided tour, a very knowledgable and genial young host, rightly proud of his father's achievement in assembling and housing this vast and astonishing collection, and eager to provide as much background detail as we could absorb.

It's a work in progress, with more buildings to be finished and hundreds of display cases to be filled.

What is already on display occupies hundreds of metres of halls, galleries and courtyards, too much to take in in a morning (they close at 12 noon). Room after room is opened for us, then locked up after we have had a good browse and are ushered on to the next treat. Long before closing time rolls round, we are promising to make a return visit. It's all lovingly and professionally mounted, though this is obviously also a work in progress, as some items are yet to be labelled. But the majority are already identified for the visitor, with much attention to detail and frequent explanations of the item's history. There are more carpets (and more dazzling ones) than you will see in all the souqs,

a weaponry collection which must rival that of the specialist museum - hundreds of swords and daggers to make any student of combat weep for joy

and many rare and ancient firearms.

There's a whole climate-controlled room devoted to manuscripts

and too many treasures and artifacts to begin to list, from gold, silver and brassware

to pottery and glass of all descriptions,

not to mention bicycles (one's made of bamboo), fascinating photos of old Doha, dioramas of desert lifestyles, tableaux of traditional Qatari household effects, photo records of Iraqi dervishes with bone spears through their cheeks etc (someone had quite a fascination with this phenomemon), carriages, religious relics, coffee pots and favourite falcons. Stuff from all corners of the near and middle east, from Egypt and Turkey to Iran and India (lots of Indian treasures).

This is just one end of one of several galleries of spectacular and exquisite furniture

while in the central courtyard, scenes of traditional life are taking shape.

In another corner you can enter a tent furnished in traditional Bedouin style, just as earlier generations of local people would have lived in.

Another hall full of carpets. Magic.

Then there's the much-publicised classic car collection. The Sheikh owns over 100 historic vehicles, but most are currently not on display, awaiting completion of their own building. This isn't it, but it's big enough to house the lot, even with the dry dock at one end holding a dozen or more dhows and other water craft. What we can see is a diverse range of 20 or so veteran, and 40s and 5os, American wheels, from early Model T Fords and electric cars, to tough wartime Dodge 6-wheeler trucks (Chrysler Corp did well in Qatar it seems) to a sparkling 59 Cadillac. I suspect none of Sheikh Faisal's friends or relatives (which would likely have meant pretty much anyone in Qatar in the 50s) was allowed to throw away their old car. Obviously this section alone demands another visit when completed.

All too soon it's time to go, but we have seen so much. There's houseroom for a bit of classic kitsch too. In this display in the costume hall, alongside a black feather fan and a little hexagonal wickerwork box of unknown purpose, we find a metal Wizard of Oz memento plaque: "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more." We really must try to schedule that revisit before we finally leave this Oz-like land.

While some well-worthwhile determination and organising is required to find and enter Sheikh Faisal's magic kingdom, the Museum of Islamic Art is by contrast, along with the rest of the Corniche, Souq Waqif and The Pearl, one of the default must-see attractions that new arrivals in Doha are breathlessly escorted to by earlier-established expats; and deservedly so.

This is the corollary to the indfatigable Sheikh's grand but utilitarian buildings and kitchen-sink collection. Here is a showcase for the world to flock to and see the cream of more than a millenium's worth of art treasures and artifacts, displayed in state of the art conditions in a building that is a work of art itself, a new architectural icon to rival the likes of Sydney Opera House, but with infinite subtlety and none of the look-at-me shock value. A jewel in the oeuvre of the venerable I.M.Pei, this is an edifice in every sense of the word, a real Museum with big echoing spaces and a sculptural presence of its own. It's all about the collection, but it's all about the building too.

It bewitches your camera; no doubt there are better pictures to be had (various coffee table tomes can be found in the museum shop for up to QR500), but here for free is our little gallery of homage, as snapped on a stroll from the nearby dhow pier on the Corniche up the avenue and into the spacious halls.

It's all free; cameras are fine inside.

The collection occupies two of the four floors, in cool, dimly lit, connected galleries arranged in an octagon around the atrium. Even if you opt not to pick up a commentary earphone, there is a wealth of information to read. Again. it'll take more than one visit to get around it all.

You need to take your time to acclimatise to the ambience and get a true feel for many of the pieces - some leap out at you with stunning colour and intricate design, some are more subtle.

As with Sheikh Faisal's, this is just the merest sampling.

It's not all small stuff; there's a fully-armoured horse and rider

and a really big carpet.

Back out in the light of the atrium, you feel the need for a coffee; currently this has to be obtained from a temperamental vending machine in a side gallery, but with all the cafe chains operating in every shopping mall and souq in Doha, with their expensively printed menus and polite serving staff, I'm sure there's one being lined up to run a suitably tasteful franchise here. There is already a posh restaurant upstairs.

You may want to check out or even buy some of the exclusive and expensive books, prints, fabrics, china and other merchandise in the museum shop; or for free you can relax and reflect in a courtyard out the side, where hundreds of fountains play, and the ever-present West Bay towers of commerce are framed by unadorned archways.

We went back to the museum on Saturday night a week ago, for another of the free entertainments we are fortunate to be able to enjoy in Qatar. This was the second-ever performance (watch out for it to come to an outdoor venue in your city soon?) 0f Identity of the Soul - an impressive five-screen, big-sound filmic presentation of the poetry of Henrik Ibsen and recently-deceased Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, quite powerfully (the thunder made us jump!) examining themes of revenge and injustice, without in-your-face preaching. There was an Arabic version the night before, voiced by Darwish; the English reading was by Vanessa Redgrave; it was worth the effort alone to see her bring to the screens her formidable acting talent and the dignity of age.

Angela managed to sneak into one of the front-row armchairs reserved for VIPs, who however didn't turn up (for a free show it was shamefully under-attended - the old trap of inadequate publicity perhaps; I heard about it via the Doha Players' very informative online noticeboard). She said it was fine, but I preferred to sit a few rows back where I could take in the wide-angle screens without aggravating the crick in my neck (still goes click unnervingly sometimes, I will take good advice and insist on no neck massage thank you, if I end up at a local barber saloon again).

The choice of the museum grounds late at night was ideal; the building is beautifully lit, but didn't intrude on the film show.

If you don't quite focus, it comes on a bit like a sand dune, doesn't it.