Part one in the three-part series: Orthoglobetrotter, recapping my summer adventures. Up first: my experience in Doha, Qatar.
I land, collect my bags, and walk into the heavy – almost suffocating – humidity.
I have arrived in Doha, the capital of Qatar. This peninsular country is located in the Persian Gulf, sharing a land border with Saudi Arabia and neighboring the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Bahrain.
I am here to visit my cousin en route to Lebanon. Qatar, once a land of poor pearl divers and fishers, is now one of the richest in the world. After they discovered oil in the 1940s, their economy boomed, making it known worldwide as “the land of work.”
Recently, Qatar has gained global popularity thanks to Al Jazeera, the broadcast network, as well as the exceptional airline, Qatar Airways. Qatar was also successful at bidding to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. In 2022, thousands of people from around the world will visit Qatar to watch the games.
The upscale city catches me slightly off guard. Two years ago I had fallen in love with Lebanon’s colorful chaos. Qatar, however, is very different.
Luxurious high-end cars fill the clean streets with a sparkling je ne sais quoi – this is a country of new money. Modern skyscrapers and chic malls pepper the landscape. The older homes are beige; owners eventually stop repainting them as the hot sun continuously chips away the color, blending in perfectly with the desert landscape. Everything here is covered in a film of sand.
Qatar is a conservative community which follows a traditional form of Islam; Sharia law underpins most laws and customs. Qatar’s wealth is in the millions. But this has also caused a bit of an identity conundrum since Qataris are as traditional as they are wealthy.
Qataris are a minority in their own land. Their population is made up largely of expats who come from all around the world: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, and the Philippines, as well as North America and Europe to work. English, as well as Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, are commonly spoken.
The influx of foreigners is putting pressure on Qataris to determine and maintain their culture.
The city’s mix of modern and traditional spaces shape Doha’s stories – each shares a unique perspective of Qatari culture and community. The cultural villages, such as the Souq Waqif and Katara, share traditional Qatari heritage and community. The global villages, such as malls, hotels, and the religious complex, create space for foreign or external activities; they are spaces for “the other.”
The Souq Waqif is located near the Corniche, the crescent-shaped waterfront around Doha Bay, which provides a pedestrian-friendly green space for early morning or evening walks and runs.
In Souq Waqif (Souq is the Arabic word for “market”), locals sell an assortment of products, ranging from traditional hand-stitched garments to fragrant spices, high-end jewelry, and souvenirs. There, I visit a small shop to watch how traditional dresses are sewn by hand. The stitch work is intricate, and the fabric is delicate. I also visit a pet store where falcons are sold.
Falconry is a millennia-old sport, popular amongst the Qatari elite. The birds of prey are trained to hunt wild animals as a competitive sport. The sport originates from the Bedouins, a group of nomads who roamed the desert, that trained the raptors to hunt.
A live performance takes place in the main square. The echoes of drumbeats indicate that Qataris are celebrating the end of Ramadan. Although technically new – it was renovated and restored almost ten years ago in 2006 – it gave me a sense of the country’s ancestry; the Souq offers the experience of walking amongst the Bedouin community.
Katara, located about twenty minutes away, is the cultural village of Doha. The village is intended as a space for many different types of people of varying backgrounds to express themselves through art; this cross-cultural exchange has been encouraged through the construction of galleries, concert halls, and amphitheaters.
The village also has two famous Masjids, or mosques. The big Masjid, or Masjid of Katara, which is decorated in a beautiful turquoise and purple mosaic, is where Friday prayers take place. Since Friday is Islam’s holy day, Friday and Saturday is the official weekend in Qatar. People work from Sunday to Thursday.
While the Golden Masjid is for used for regular prayers and Quran lessons throughout the week. Katara offers Qataris a glimpse into other global traditions while also sharing and preserving their own.
Meanwhile, downtown Doha compares to any American city with its polished landscape of towering office buildings, five-star hotels, and malls sparkling with prestige.
Malls are a big deal here. With extremely hot temperatures – especially in the afternoon – staying indoors is a top priority. In Doha, malls – kind of like one’s car – reflect your social status.
The Villaggio, for example, is a high-end mall tailored to elite millionaires that are accustomed to shopping at Europe’s finest fashion houses: Dior, Coach, and Chanel – you name it, they have it. Its Venetian design has soft angel murals on the ceiling with bold golden arches in the corners, and yes, a real gondola that offers boat rides.
There is also a dress code. Shoulders must be covered and skirts must be worn to your knees. It was here where I first saw Qatar’s cultural intersection: the call to prayer sounds off in the background, a women wearing a black abaya (a long black dress worn with a hijab, burka or niqab) leaves Chanel with an armful of designer clothes, sparkly high heels quietly peeking out from the bottom of her dress. Her children are with the nanny; they ask for ice cream.
These workers live very different lives than the families that shop at the Villaggio.
They shop at the bargain department stores and flea markets outside of the main city traveling by bus – a mode of transit typically reserved for low-paid workers. The mall is cheaper and far less formal.
They have come to Qatar under the kafala system, an immigrant sponsorship system in which an in-country resident, usually the employer, must sponsor an employee. The employer essentially has control over your work conditions, compensation, and your ability to change jobs or leave the country.
The employer must grant the employee permission to change jobs or leave the country with an exit permit – it is the same system in other Gulf and Arab states. There have been many reports of unsuitable work and living conditions for migrant workers in Qatar.
Most men come from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. They live like squatters in labor camps – ten to twelve people sleeping in a cramped room with unhygienic facilities. They are forced to work during the afternoon ban when temperatures can reach up to fifty degrees Celsius. Many employers delay paying worker wages, or confiscate their passports, threatening to deport them if they complain. They also lack on-site safety at work.
While domestic care workers – mainly women from the Philippines – are especially vulnerable to sexual and emotional abuse, since they live-in with their employers. As of last October, the Emir has made several labor reforms but many are doubtful things will change.
An estimated 1,200 workers have already died on the job. 4,000 deaths are expected to occur by the 2022 games. The upcoming World Cup games have put Qatar’s labor practices in the global spotlight, with the international community asking Qatar another question: What are you going to do about public drinking?
Currently, hotels are the legal bars and restaurants in the country. The only other place you can buy alcohol, and other haraam products (anything that is forbidden in the Quran, like pork) is at the Qatar Distribution Center. You are required to obtain a license to purchase goods here.
Hotels are glitzy, chic spaces that have relaxed regulations, such as the dress code. Most who hang out here are foreigners and other expats they met at work or through their personal network. I, for example, met many Lebanese expats through my Lebanese relatives.
Hotels separate space between foreigners and locals; a place for tourists to indulge without interfering in Qatari culture.
Rumor has it if you talk to the right person at the bar you can get a lovely lady to spend the night with you – for the right price, of course – or you can indulge yourself in an illegal assortment of drugs – if you keep it on the down low. In a land where public drinking and PDA are a big no-no, hotels seem to be a space of non-interference – as long as the haraam behavior stays in the hotel.
So, many are wondering if Qatar will loosen its laws because most World Cup visitors are going to want to drink. As it stands now, it is illegal to drink in stadiums, museums, malls, and concert halls – pretty much anywhere outside of the hotel. For the World Cup, Qatar has agreed to sell alcohol in specially created fan zones during the games. Qatar’s fear, however, is how to deal with the crowds of rowdy, drunken soccer-loving hooligans in a public space, since the stadiums are going to be shared by Qatar and the world.
Finally, the religious compound in Abu Hamour is about twenty minutes away from the city. It is a large piece of property donated by the Emir and leased for a nominal fee. This is where Christians are allowed to congregate. Services are usually on Friday. Prior to the 2008 construction, Christians practiced in their homes.
There are many different denominations here: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, and Indian Christian. Only Christians are allowed on the compound. In Qatar, churches are not allowed to have any visible religious symbols (i.e. crosses) on the buildings nor are they allowed to engage in missionary work.
When I arrived at the compound I assumed most Christians would feel a kinship with one another since they are a minority here. That they would have a deep Christian relationship and community. However, I learned the strongest ties to the community were found – once again – in ethnic relations.
Even within a single parish, the Indian Orthodox or Filipino Catholics, for example, had the closest relationships – birds of a feather flock together, as they say. This makes sense, I thought. Culture is, all in all, a strong influence in our daily lives from the food we eat to the language(s) we speak, to how we raise our kids and regard the elderly. It is a palpable pull factor in whom we choose to congregate with.
After my travels, I often like to pick a word that describes the city or country I’ve just visited. My word for Doha is “order.” Doha’s spaces share different and unique perspectives of the country. They all have their own narrative, character, and story, from the migrant labor camps on the outskirts of town to elite millionaire shopping malls in the downtown core. The traditional “dry” (alcohol-free) Souq and the liberal, Western hotels, to Katara, the cultural heart of the city, and the religious complex, an enclosed community for expats.
However, Qatar’s World Cup stadiums are creating a cultural intersection, a public space that Qataris will share with the world to watch a sport loved dearly by all. But this gray space is not yet defined, and the rules of the game are not yet understood: spaces of “the other” have always been tolerated – now, they are asking to be welcomed.
Next on Orthoglobetrotter, I travel to Lebanon to visit my country of colorful chaos. Stay tuned and thank you for reading!