I think I'm racist because I went to Qatar with lots of inaccurate ideas and misconceptions. I blame TripAdvisor. I was initially afraid of doing anything without my husband. I was inexplicably surprised when Qatari natives revealed their love for Game of Thrones, or played Zayn in cars, homes, and public spaces. The main observable differences between Qataris and Clevelanders are that Qataris are far wealthier, have better roads and eyebrows, and I.M Pei actually likes them. Embarrassingly, I asked some people if they would "get in trouble" for taking a picture with me, and assumed Qatari women weren't allowed to drive. All met my ignorance with remarkable forbearance. "I'm not Amish," one friend said matter-of-factly. "The camera's not going to steal my soul!" People constantly had to remind me this wasn't Saudi Arabia. "I can drive. I just hate driving in Doha traffic," a female friend explained, pulling a flaçon of Chanel perfume from her 3.55. She spritzed both our wrists- mine and hers- before shuffling away, Hermès sandals peeking out under an intricately beaded abaya.
Our friends insisted on paying for everything, displaying true Arabian hospitality. They took time out of their day to visit the stunning Ibn Tulun-inspired Museum of Islamic Art with us, share a traditional Persian meal at Shebestan, and sip delicious karak tea on a sand dune. They joked about their nationwide weight issues. I got the impression that not eating meat or gluten struck some as strange, but everyone knew my deal- clean pan, no wheat, barley, or rye- so I ate gluten-free and vegan without any trouble. Recently, a 24 year old even opened Evergreen Organics, Qatar's first vegan cafe.
My husband used to live in Abu Dhabi, and we've both traveled the Middle East separately, but nothing could prepare us for the sheer luxury of Qatar. I can't compare it to any place I've ever been. They speak casually of routine plastic surgeries and get regular massages at the Four Seasons. They layer the latest runway fashions under hijab. "This is our great chess game," one Qatari commented. "White thoub for men, black for women."
Unlike other emirates, it seems Qatar imports less Western institutions, preferring to establish their own museums and icons while buying up buildings, fashion houses, department stores, and sports teams instead. For art and architecture lovers, Doha is heaven. I'm used to roads or complexes built with cheap materials by the lowest bidder. Everything in Doha was designed by the best architects and structural engineers, made from the finest quality granite, marble, and sandstone. Whenever I finished a glass of water, someone arrived immediately to replace it with a fresh one. No expense was spared, except when it came to imported labor. Each morning I watched Nepalese migrants dangle from skyscrapers in searing heat. White tourists decried FIFA death tolls. After talking joloff rice and Twi with a Rastafarian driver from Accra, he told us about difficult working conditions and how much he wanted to go home.
By contrast, many never want to leave. Though their mothers didn't wear abaya, the women I spoke to were proud to have masters degrees, be PhD candidates, and earn positions only men held before, as well as higher salaries than their male counterparts. When I asked a friend if she'd ever move to one of the many countries she frequently traveled to, she shook her head no. "I love the Gulf," she said resolutely.
High temperatures and an astonishing number of cars mean you'll mostly see expats and immigrants walking around Doha, and only for short distances. Qatar's vision for 2030 involves pedestrian friendly development (such as the Pearl, where I think all the expats live), an advanced public transport system (completing Phase 1 by 2019) and zero waste initiatives like composters, solar compactors, and refillable water bottle systems. Even now, trash is separated by recyclables, compostables, and landfill waste, though I heard that all trash gets collected into a single truck, presumably headed to the same place. I was shocked when I saw how perfectly green the grass was and how many sprinklers ran each day.
Qatar is focusing more on indigenous plants and installing rooftop gardens to reduce dependence on air conditioning. They need to tackle overly salinated water and environmental damage caused by oil spills, and some Qatari are upset about city planning decisions made by non-natives. "They should use the colors of the desert. It would be so much better if they relied on the expertise of people who actually grew up here," one commented. However, their aspirations are sound. It takes time to change culture and behaviors, especially in a place where development happened so rapidly. "Our grandparents had slaves. You can't get Qataris to live in apartment buildings," my friend explained. Currently, carbon emissions don't seem to be a big motivator, but being a world leader in sustainability does.
By the way, the Qatari royal family is fascinating. First of all, it seems like all Qataris know them personally. The Emir goes to Souq Waqif every Friday and it's fun seeing their beautiful stallions and falcons. Secondly, the Sheikhas are so powerful and beautiful. Some people criticize how Sheikha Mozah wears exclusively haute couture with her turbans, instead of mixing it up with high street items like Kate Middleton. But I love her uncompromising style. If I had seven kids, and accomplished everything she did while staying that slim, you better believe I'd wear nothing but Dior.
Sheikha Al Mayassa is equally intriguing. Perhaps the most influential person in the art world, she commissioned Jean Nouvel to design the new Qatar National Museum. It's not even finished and already looks amazing, like veined flower petals sprawled across the Doha coastline. Once completed, the museum will feature an indigenous plant garden, cinema, research laboratories, and cultural food hall in addition to galleries.
GLUTEN FREE, VEGAN DOHA
- W Doha | Great location and gluten-free friendly restaurants frequented by native Qataris. Gluten free pasta, cakes, and afternoon tea available (the Ritz also does gluten-free high tea), and I loved the matcha sundae and cocktails at Spice Market | www.whoteldoha.com
- Al Riwaq Gallery | Huang Yong Ping's suspended cuttlefish, along with works from 15 contemporary Chinese artists | www.qm.org.qa
- Bin Jelmood House | Interesting museum on slavery around the world, particularly Qatar
- Museum of Islamic Art and Park | The highlight of our trip. Expertly lit artifacts from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Iran, China and India; an Alain Ducasse restaurant, gluten free / vegan café (I had a lychee, lemongrass, coconut and saffron tapioca pudding with a saffron-mango smoothie), fantastic library, nighttime marketplace, and Richard Serra's 7. I like that Qataris work there, and they are all really friendly and welcoming. The Qajar exposition showed conceptions of beauty in the Iranian dynasty- women drew unibrows and mustaches on to be more attractive! We later saw Bach's Brandenburg Concerto in the auditorium. The acoustics and ensemble were amazing. | www.mia.org.qa
- QNCC | Louise Bourgeois' Maman | www.qatarconvention.com
- Mathaf | Representing over 100 contemporary Arabic artists, plus an exhibition by Hassan Sharif | www.mathaf.org.qa
- Souq Waqif and Doha Islamic Center | I didn't like the Souq much because I hate shopping and saw lots of cute cats in cages and wanted them all. But Qataris recommend going in the evening. It's nice to see live traditional music, falcons, and Arabian horses. The spire of the Doha Islamic Center (across the street) is a beautiful addition to the city skyline. We walked along Al Corniche afterwards, watching lights twinkle over the waterfront | www.souq-waqif-doha.com and www.fanar.gov.qa
- Al Mustafawi | Organic farm (if zero-wasters can't make it out there, Lulu Hypermarket has unpackaged vegetables) | www.mustafawiorganicvegetable.com
- Red Velvet Cupcakery | After Katara Beach, the Chinese silk exhibition, or a visit to the theater at Katara Cultural Center, sample incredible, richly frosted gluten-free vegan cupcakes on the terrace of this bakery. I particularly enjoyed how they played Taylor Swift's "Teardrops on My Guitar" when I visited | www.redvelvetdoha.com
- Nonna Zanon | Gluten free pizza | www.nonnazanon.com
- Khor Al Udeid | Dune bashing and a swim in the Inland Sea, on the Saudi Arabian border. Keep your eyes peeled for salt hummocks, camels, gazelles, cute Arabian goats, and oryx among the brush
- Illusion | Rooftop bar | www.kempinski.com/en/doha/marsa-malaz-kempinski-the-pearl-doha/dining/bars/illusion
- East West / West East Richard Serra | After Zekreet and Film City, check out this beautifully oxidized steel installation in the desert
- Al Khor Mangrove Forest | Kayaking and an unforgettable lesson in climate change
- Shebestan Palace | Famous traditional Persian restaurant for gluten-free dishes like delicious ash, khoresht, sholeh zard, and more. We were the only tourists!
I could go on and on about the architecture- Aspire Tower, the Burj Qatar, Tom Otterness' sculptures and playgrounds in Hamad International Airport, the curvatures of which mimic the dunes- even lamp posts covered in Arabic script lit like lapis lazuli at night. But instead I'll just tell you about the Yemeni man who picked us up in his tricked out, custom Land Rover, painted to match the sand. We had the best time together. As we balanced precariously on the edge of a desert canyon 60 meters high, we sang Justin Bieber songs, and he told us all about his devoutly Christian, Filipino wife.
"Americans think they can see the desert themselves, but we find them stuck after five, six hours, all the time. They just see a mass of sand. We see five or six roads that we memorize. And the desert changes everyday." He handed us mugs of Karakh tea his wife made. "When I first told my mother and father I was marrying a Filipino woman, they asked, what about the children? I said, what about them? The children will be beautiful! The mixed features will be extremely cute!" He told us about shopping for jeans while dating a foreigner in his pre-gastric bypass days, and said that if he bought anything that wasn't pink for his pregnant wife, "She would kill me." He explained, "Today, everything is the opposite of what it once was. Here, a husband is like the President, and the wife is like Congress. The wife controls the husband." Some of his friends abandoned him when he broke tradition by marrying a Christian, he said, including his best friend from childhood. And his family? "They fell in love with her too. My mother likes to rest her head on my wife's stomach, just listening to the baby. They can't imagine their lives without her now. She lights up the whole house."