Doha, where the Sheiks are Chic
Trip Start Mar 16, 2009
47Trip End Jul 22, 2009
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Where am I? Seriously, Doha is not a tourist town, per se, but it is far and away one of the more interesting and in so many ways seemingly contradictory places I have ever been in my life.
At our hotel we were told that we could hire a limo driver at 60 riyals per hour to take us around the city and show us the sights, not that there are actually that many of them. The hotel taxis, which are limos, are more expensive than regular taxis, but they will stay with you. The problem in Doha is that there really are very few "normal" taxis, so hailing one outside the hotel to take us somewhere could have been difficult...
Of course, when I asked at the front desk if we could get a "tour taxi" at around 11:30, I was told that most places of interest close each day from 12:00-4:00, when it is hotter than hot... That included many of the restaurants in Waqif Souq, which is the best place close by to walk for food. In order to get some food, we would have to go to a mall, one of the big malls, and none were in walking distance...or we'd have to wait and eat expensively at the hotel...
We took a chance and started walking outside hoping to find a taxi. We got very very lucky. We took the taxi to the Villagio mall, a swanky new mall on the outskirts of town that the concierge told us was really great because of the ceiling....(?)
When we walked in, I saw what he meant...it's like the Truman show. The mall is a model of Venice, complete with a canal and gondolas and a ceiling designed to look like the sky. Above every store are mock balconies as if you are really in a city. If you look on the wikitravel Doha page (http://wikitravel.org/en/Doha) you weill see a picture from inside the mall that I thought was an outdoor picture. If you follow the canal through the mall you arrive at...you guessed it...an Ice Rink! It's in the center of the food court where Kristen and I did what any true American would do after three weeks in Nepal and over 2 months away from home: We went to McDonalds and had Big Mac meals!
The mall was one of the most fascinating places I've ever been.
When I say that in Doha the Sheiks are Chic it is because they really are. Walking around are many men dressed in traditional white robes with white or red and white head scarfs of the type Yassir Arafat used to wear. Only their look is, in some ways, anything but tradtional. All wear sandals, but most sandals have diamond or faux diamond studs. Cell phones are attached either to their hands at all times or some have blue tooth head sets. Sunglasses are the norm it seems, with Ray Bans or Ray Ban look alikes being most popular. Some of the robes have sleeves that simply end with elastic or hang loose, but most are cuffed and the men display shiny cufflinks. It is as if the Western Business shirt were just extended to the floor. I have seen at least five outfits where the head scarf was replaced by a baseball cap. The uniformity of it all, however, for most men wear the plain white head scarf (not Arafat style) in addition to the white robe makes it look almost as if people are playing dress up; do people really wear the same thing every day?
The women of Doha are interesting as well... It was very unsettling on our first night to see the first women I'd ever seen covered with more than just a hijab. Even in the setting of a thoroughly Western mall, many women have their faces covered except for two eye slits, or have their faces completely covered by black veils. But these women, as well as women who have their faces open to the public, for the most part wear very stylish robes, with sequines and shiny seams. They carry high end hand bags, just like the western high end shoppers seen in the mall as well. Even in their modesty, for the hijab is, at least in part, a display of modesty, the women of Doha in the Villagio are as trendy and "chique" as they come.
Perhaps even more interesting than seeing women who hide their face and yet seem eminently concerned with their appearence is to watch the dyamic of the man and his woman. In Nepal, a very interesting cultural observation to be made is that women seem very sheltered and hidden from the public. I would say that in Nepal we saw nearly 3 times as many men as women. When leaving Kathmandu, there were two security lines, one for men and one for women. The one for men stretched a mile long and took me 45 minutes to pass through, Kristen made it through hers in under 3 minutes... In Nepal, the men dance with the men, and men walk around the streets holding hands. Women are, for lack of a better way of putting it, god knows where.
But in the snazzy Western style malls of Doha the women and men interact and shop together. I admit, seeing women fully covered was for me at first glance almost as scary as unsettling. When I saw a woman with two eyeslits walking through the lobby of our 4 star Best Western affiliated hotel with her husband last night I shuddered, thinking to myself, essentially, how tough must that dude be to make his wife dress like that, either by personal choice or force.
But today I saw man and woman walking hand and hand. A couple in which the man could not even so much as look into his wife's eyes passed me holding hands engaged in deep conversation, the man smiling like a newlywed. In Nepal the women seemed to be hidden from the public, in Doha they seem to be hidden in public.
We went into a huge Carreone supermarket which is a lot like a Wal-Mart. In the electronic section there was American music playing on repeat. But I was more interested by the dynamics of families shopping together: the man dressed like a Bedouin Sheik, the woman showing only her eyes, and the kids, dressed like any Western child would be dressed, riding in the shopping carts filled with food and other accessories like shampoo, children's sneakers, t-shirts, and a new toaster. I looked on in amazement as a father and mother (who did not show any of her face) walked around with a little girl in jeans and a black t-shirt. When would she decide, or be asked, or however it may happen, to lose her t-shirt and jeans and don herself from head to toe in black robes, covering her hair, face, and even eyes? Would she do it willingly? Why? Would she be forced? Why? It was air conditioned in the mall but 106 farenheight outside...how could anyone ever want to cover themselves from head to toe in black robes?
As we sat in Starbucks, like good Americans, I did quite a bit of people watching. A little girl in a pink t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers passed holding her completely covered mother's hand. All of the sudden she popped little roller balls out of her sneakers and started gliding along the floor, not a care in the world. Would she soon be covered too?
A little boy sat driving the fake blue car attached to the front of his mother's shopping cart, like any little kid in any supermarket in the States. Only his mother's face was covered by a black veil. How does he feel about the fact he cannot look into his mother's eyes in public? We saw a number of ex-pat families, and there were probably as many Westerners in the mall as Arabs. does the boy resent the American or British kids who can see their mothers' eyes? And, what's it like to grow up a Westerner in Qatar, where one's mother showing her face and hair in public is NOT the norm?
A little girl in a pink dress with bows and spaghetti straps walked by holding her father's hand. He dressed traditionally in the long white robe with a headscarf, while she bounced along like any barbie loving girly girl, probably proud of her little pink dress. Would he one day hope she covered it all up? Would she do it to please the father she affectionately held onto?
And in contrast to these scenes of fully covered women and men were stores selling the snazziest Western clothing, and revealing Western clothing, you could think of. How funny it was to see a number of Muslim women dressed in full robes and hijabs pass a mannaquin adorned with low cut jeans perfectly placed on the mannaquin to reveal a squined purple thong in the store Xanada. Yes, a manaquin with whale tail could be viewed at the same time as Muslim women showing not even their eyes. There was also a "Hip Hop Store" and the map advertised "Ralph Laurent."
After Starbucks we hopped in a cab for the City Centre Mall, bigger than the Villagio and located in downtown Doha. As I said, we were told at the hotel and by wikitravel there was nothing else open between 12-4. Our taxi driver did his best job to get us there as quickly as possible, but hit a little traffic, the first we've really seen so far. When the din of the early afternoon prayers hit his ears, he immediately turned off the radio...
In the City Centre the sights continued. As you walk in there is another Ice Rink where rock ballads entertain the skaters, like Bryan Adams' "Power of Love" or "Good time for a white wedding."
Now I saw a family in which the man wore a Von Dutch t-shirt tucked into ratty jeans. The kids, three beautiful girls, were wearing puffy almost tutu like dresses with stockings. Their mother had nothing showing but her two eyes. They walked near a Victoria's Secret store.
There was a store for the high end fashionable Muslim robes worn by so many of the women called My Fair Lady. I took a picture of the robes hanging in the windows with their sequins and jewels. Next door was another women's store, "Women's Secret," that sold bikinis and lingerie... Where are we?
What is going on in Doha? The contrasts and seeming contradictions are everywhere. The women shop at high end stores covered from head to toe for pretty little dresses for their daughters and sneakers for their sons. Yet despite the physically apparent signs of what we in the West might call "repression," there are also signs of women's independence, out in groups or alone shopping together, that we simply didn't see much of in Nepal. (I know you can't drive if you are a woman in Saudi Arabia, but I'm not sure the same thing is true in Qatar. Even if it is, the women do seem to move either alone or in packs when they want to.) There are also signs of love and familial teamwork as the men and women shop together and hold hands, like any American couple, and while the man is in a position of dominance, I did see a man pushing a double baby carriage while his wife, face completely covered, walked next to him holding his hand.
The City Centre features a huge arcade full of games and mini amusement rides. I watched a mother with her face covered help her son, dressed in a t-shirt and jean shorts, play whack a mole. A father watched his two sons proudly while his wife, face covered, talked with a friend, hair covered but no face covering.
That's another thing, the diversity is striking. There are women with simply a hijab and the rest of their clothing is Western. There are women in full robes with the hijab, but the robes reveal jeans underneath and the headscarf does not fully cover the hair. There are women in full robes with the hijab covering everything. There are women in full robes with only two eyeslits. Finally there are women with everything covered including a face veil. One woman, pushing her kids, who wore jeans and t-shirts, in a stroller had a black veil with a set of glasses on the OUTSIDE of the veil...as she walked though an arcade. Some robes are simply black and spartan, others sequined and flashy.
I have spent a lot of time studying Islam and the Middle East, but I admit I have never fully comprehended both A: the prevalence of the hijab, and B: the gradations of the hijab. One couple walked bywith the man in the white robes, the woman face covered with just eye slits, and three daughters under the age of 7 all dressed cutely in the same flower print sleeveless dresses. When and how will it be determined that the girls move from the practicality (since its 105 degrees out) and "immodesty" of sleeveless floral prints to the modesty of black robes, and will their faces be shown, and will their robes be plain or pretty.
And will their husbands share their modesty and long clothing? The full facial covering or the eye slits are unsettling, but in some ways the hijab alone is not at all in Qatar because, for lack of a better way of putting it, the misery of long clothing seems to be shared by both sexes, though the men get to wear white not black. The men are in full robes, only their hands and feet uncovered, and they too wear headscarfs; the misery of covering up in 105 degree heat is shared. But with the full facial covering, and notion of any degree of equality is completely thrown away.
Wow, what an interesting day. We took a cab back to the hotel along the Corniche and it was a pretty drive. Along the Corniche was the same mix of ex-pats running and traditionally dressed locals as last night. It's a funny mix this place called Doha: Western amenities and traditional garb and values. But, for the last time, it does seem like here the sheiks are chic.
P.S.: Hoping myself to be more than an uniterested tourist, I started asking everyone IK could where they were from. All the workers are from all over, or so it seems. The guy at the gym this morning was from Sri Lanka. In the mall I met a few people from Nepal and from Indonesia, the Philipines, Kenya, India, all over Asia. They come to work long days and are put up in housing paid for by their employers. I can't imagine dealing with the heat!