Duplicity in Doha

Marshall is there to meet me, on the other side of the arrivals hall in Doha. Immediately upon deplaning, I notice the cultural changes and duplicitous manner of life in this oil-rich kingdom. Three young women in black burqas embellished with beaded sequin trim around the cuffs, carrying Gucci and Prada handbags, wearing Manolo Blahnik platforms, alternately glance at their Blackberries while chattering in Arabic, as we ride the bus from the plane to the terminal. American ex-pats make small-talk with visiting U.S. citizens, while Indian and Pakistani workers carry bungee-corded packages as hand luggage. There are “fast-track” lanes through immigration for card-carrying residents, Gulf Country Citizen (GCC) lines, and “other” citizenship immigration check lines. I completely forget Marshall’s advice to go through the “women only” line to expedite the process, but then it is a “slow” night when I arrive this Wednesday, Jan. 27.

A new terminal will soon replace this old one, to meet the demand the Amir hopes to muster with its bid for the 2022 World Cup. Block-long billboards build anticipation for this successful bid, as do the scantily occupied glass structures dominating the city sky line across the bay. Pizza Hut, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts have made it here, oddly situated next to Lebanese bakeries, Turkish cafes and petrol stations.

I sleep until 1:15 p.m. on my first day in Doha, after 22 hours of traveling. Considering it is 5:30 a.m. at home, and despite my restless slumber and stiff neck, I felt rested enough to work out in the gym in Marshall’s building. The equipment is adequate, but the Serdhal Towers has no internet access today, after almost a month of intermittent service. Ex-pat residents are especially wary, since temporary lobby-only service offered through the transition to wireless (which has taken almost a month) is also down today. I set off for the City Center, directly across the street, in search of a signal. There is none, not at Starbucks, not at any of the cafes or restaurants. There go my plans to keep my blog posts, Twitter and Facebook feeds up-to-date, and my intent to follow up with potential employers and family members via Skype.

Marshall has worked all day while I acclimate, and he arrives surprisingly early to take me to dinner. We drive along the Corniche, which he counsels me to always look for if I am lost. This main drag is at once a promenade and a centerpiece for the monumental structures that ring the city waterscape. He points out the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei, the grand mosque that backs up to the Souk, and the Sheraton, the city’s first major tourist hotel. He warns me about the round-abouts, built by British and detested by the rest. They are vestibules for countless accidents as Qataris rush haphazardly in their SUVs across multiple lanes, a testimony to a society balancing the old traditions with new trends and technology. (A ticket for cell phone use while driving will cost you the equivalent of US $100.)

The air is a crisp 57 degrees Fahrenheit, as we make our way through the cobbled streets of the souk, through the alleys filled with cages housing falcons, bunnies and parakeets. We turn the maze through the household goods, past the textiles and local cobblers, to the main streets filled with tourist paraphernalia. I am consciously not holding onto Marshall as I wobble in my high-heeled boots, as this is frowned upon, although I do see men holding hands with other men. It is difficult not to nudge or touch this man I seldom see, and who I’ve known for 27 years.

I am a bit disappointed in the Moroccan fare we have chosen, although the atmosphere of this upstairs outdoor cafe is lively, with locals and tourists alike eating kabobs and smoking shisha under warm gas lights. There is even an impressive fireworks display in the distance, although Marshall is unaware of any national holiday or cause for celebration. Winding our way back, we venture into the Hotel Souq Waqif (a boutique hotel with only 13 rooms), and are offered Turkish coffee, complete with demonstrations on how to shake my cup if I want more. I shake it once.

It has been a good day, overall, full of ambiguity, yet surprisingly refreshing.