XLV Doha Dreamland

Travel notes from Doha, Qatar, August 27-30, 2017. Palms, sea, sand, the evening light, and the best of contemporary architecture.

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Poll (posted on Twitter). Do you think that you benefit from democracy as much as politicians do?

What’s the point of boasting that censorship bureaus have been dismantled when one can be condemned by a court of law for what he or she writes?

George W. Bush wanted to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. (Doha Bus Information)

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They are now using self-cleaning windows on Doha skyscrapers (because of sand). (Doha Bus Information)

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Msheireb Museums (متاحف مشيرب)

Bin Jelmood House’s Exhibit on Slavery

Modern slavery (الرِّق المعاصر). Qatar, like every nation, has long since abolished slavery. Yet we all continue to be faced with a global problem. Slavery not only continues in the present day but also may be a greater human problem than it has ever been. An estimated 27 million people are victims of modern slavery around the world and almost every country is involved. Most modern slavery takes the form of human trafficking. (A United Nations definition of human trafficking follows.)

It turns out that 80 percent of contemporary slaves are sex workers – presumably most of them women. Asking where these sex slaves work, I think the answer is that the majority of them work in affluent Western countries. Western countries are where the greatest number of slaves are to be found.

The exhibit also says a word on the Islamic kafala system through which ‘guest workers’ are introduced in some Arab countries where they toil under conditions that human rights associations describe as slavery. In this respect Qatar has been specially targeted, in particular regarding the nation’s use of South Asian workforce in the construction sector. The exhibit doesn’t try to contest that kafala is a form of slavery nor to claim that there is no issue; it doesn’t expatiate on the problem very much, however. Yet, as far as I know, and my reflection dates back to a French TV documentary I saw a couple of years ago about kafala in Qatar, there is no doubt in my mind that many beneficiaries of the kafala system are multinational Western companies that operate in Qatar. Yet the documentary of which I am talking failed to report on this. On the contrary, it stressed the case of one German company which CEO was taking steps to release the company’s South Asian workforce from the kafala system, which reporting bias evidently led to the implicit conclusion that all Western companies operating in Qatar were opposing the practise in the same fashion. Nothing was said about other Western companies and I fail to see how, if those do not oppose kafala actively, they would not benefit from this form of slavery. And it is my understanding that a great deal of Western companies are making business in Qatar.

Circassian (white) as well as black slaves were numerous in the Gulf for ages.

Mohammed Bin Jassim House

In a video a gentleman from Pakistan says when he first came to Doha 35 years ago there were no Qatari riyals, today’s national currency – only Indian rupees.

A New Msheireb Development project under the patronage of the Emiress intends to make of this historical central area of Doha a model ‘green,’ i.e. ecological, renewable-energy-friendly neighborhood. Today it has become a rather populous district crowded by South Asian migrants with their shops and businesses. I wonder whether these migrants will still be there once the area has been turned green and fashionable…

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After a short cruise on a derelict dhow***, I took a stroll on the Corniche but my mind was not at ease because I couldn’t help wondering how on earth I would manage to cross the road (a densely trafficked two-way street) to the other side to get a taxi. I must have walked more than a kilometer before I met a pedestrian crossing, and as soon as I saw it I decided to stop my anxious stroll. The traffick lights turned green for cars as I arrived, and I must have waited something like ten minutes for the lights to turn red again – and yet they turned green again just as I engaged the second part of the crossing, so I had to trot behind a Somali-looking cyclist who wanted to cross the road at the pedestrian crossing and had turned on an alarm on his bike in case the car drivers would not notice him and would run over him (actually over us) as night was beginning to fall.

***(For this dhow cruise I paid between 5 and 7 times the usual price because I had confused the service I would be offered with a half-day or full-day ‘chartered tour’ with dinner included, of which my information guide gave notice (Marhaba, autumn 2017, courtesy of Radisson Blu hotel). Confused in this way, I hardly bothered to haggle over the outrageous price (which for a chartered tour would have been unexpensive), actually made a very unconvinced and ineffectual attempt at it (asking for a price much too close to the one uttered), and only on board the boat did I realize my mistake. I had probably also been impressed by the crowd of shabby South Asian boatmen who surrounded me as soon as I got off the taxi on the Corniche. Forgetting that they were competing entrepreneurs rather than a single-minded gang of tourist-exploiting thugs, I overlooked that one of them tried to make me understand I was going to pay too high a price by accepting the offer that the sly youngster had made me, when he said, after I asked for water, that there wasn’t fresh water on the dhows for customers (so I’d better reconsider). I was invited to walk in the boat and I walked in, thus agreeing to the outrageous terms. They had no fresh water on board and had to ask some fellow boatmen on the other side of the bay for two bottles, which were proffered to me after about half the thirty-minute cruise. By the time the cruise ended, I had realized my mistake, as I said, and that what was supposed to be one of the cheapest attractions in Doha would be one of the most expensive for me (about 40 euros). When handing his riyals to the boy, I tried to be inconspicuous for I was seeing the other boatmen staring intently at the both of us. The boy took the banknotes and, overwhelmed by delight, started performing monkey shines, grotesquely palpating the notes as if to check their genuineness. I said ‘good bye’ as graciously as I could, as well as to a grey-haired boatman who seemed to be endowed with some authority and who politely answered with his own good bye, and I left the wharf. The boy was unable to repress a brief laugh behind my back, so happy he was, and for a moment I expected the whole of them to burst in prolonged, irrepressible laughters at me and my foolishness. They did not and I feel grateful. Besides, I never perceived the slightest sign of agressiveness on the part of these amiable South Asians. I warmly recommend the dhow cruises in Doha.)

Man walked on the moon and I walked in Doha. It comes as no surprise that the superposh new residential area called The Pearl Doha, built on an artificial island, advertises its property as being ‘pedestrian-friendly.’ An argument of weight, no doubt!

The Pearl Doha is the counterpart of The Palm Dubai, also on an artificial island and also a superposh residential area. I don’t know which copied the other. The Pearl also boasts free wifi for all residents (through the national telecom company Ooredoo’s ‘Supernet’).

To be precise it is the neighborhood which looks like a brand new Venice that is advertised as been ‘pedestrian-friendly,’ but I guess the other parts, like the one that replicates a Swiss Lakes canton, mustn’t be too unfriendly either…

Pedestrian NASCAR dads.

The more cars in a country, the more pedestrian her culture.

No matter how many luxury cars it sports, the bourgeoisie is pedestrian.

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Mathaf Museum of Arab Modern Art

Going to a museum of modern art is an adventure, perhaps the ultimate urban adventure: ultraperipheral locations unknown to hotel staff and taxi drivers! I have experienced this recently in Prague, in Sharjah (coming from adjacent Dubai), and in Doha.

To go to Mathaf Museum, Doha, from Msheireb Museums, standing on the pavement I waved my hand to an official Karwa company’s turquoise taxi, which stopped. I said I was going to Mathaf Museum and the driver, who, by the way, had one passenger already, told me to get in. Then he wanted me to confirm that I was going to the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), which is the principal cultural institution in the city and, as I was to find out, about the only one known by hackmen and hotel staff. I said no, I was going to Mathaf Museum. After a few exchanges in which the other passenger, a South Asian gentleman like the driver, took an active part, watching at my map and giving instructions to the driver in a language that was neither English nor Arabic, the driver dropped his other passenger and started toward the peripheral area called Education City where Mathaf Museum was located.

I learned afterwards, from a limousine driver, that Karwa cabs normally don’t go to such peripheral areas. Only because my Karwa driver first had thought I was going to the more central Museum of Islamic Art had he let me in his taxi, and I assume he, when informed of his mistake, did not dare to throw me out!

When we finally arrived at Mathaf Museum –and that took some time because he, and I, had to ask our way to wards and security guards at a few booths here and there in Education City– I learned that the shuttle bus I had expected would drive me back to downtown, did not operate that day (even though the Mathaf was open, as the shuttle is between Mathaf and MIA and the latter was closed that day, so the shuttle did not operate). I asked my Karwa taxi if he could wait for me on the spot and tell me what he asks for the service, but I did not manage to convince him, and he left. So I made my visit to the museum concerned about how I would manage to come back from that remote and rather lonely place… Luckily I had the phone number of a limo driver, Mister Basheer, and in the end was lucky enough to have him drive to the museum to pick me off in no time.

In parenthesis, it reminded me that, although Sharjah is no further than 15-20 minutes from Dubai, tourists in Dubai don’t seem to know the many interesting museums to be found in Sharjah, as Dubai taxi and limo drivers don’t know these museum’s locations. Yet my limo driver there, Mister … (his name will come to me), turned out to very helpful throughout.

In Prague, although one of the two museums for contemporary art I visited was located near a metro station, it was a very peripheral station, serving areas hardly conceived for pedestrian convenience. I had first taken a wrong exit and walked in a desolate industrial spot a dozen minutes, map in hand, before I realized the museum was on the other side of the metro station. Then I came back and took another exit on the opposite side, which led me straight to a… highway – a concrete desert stormed at intervals by zooming metal monsters. I was lucky enough to meet a young man who told me that that second exit was not the right one either for my destination and he was kind enough to accompany me to the museum and give me instructions on how to reach the station after my visit.

Mathaf Museum, although my visit was a little marred by the uncertainty I described, was worth the pain.

Rubaeat (1994), by Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata:

Composition (1970) & The Farthest West (1970-71), by Mohammed Melehi:

In the Depth of Alienation (1972) and Untitled (1971), by Rafa al-Nasiri:

Médina entre deux orages (ca. 1982) (Medina between two storms), by Nejib Belkhodja:

Contrary to Sharjah Art Museum, where I saw the painting Sabra and Shatila by Palestinian artist Bashir Sinwar (posted here), I found no Palestinian militant work in Mathaf Museum.

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When you travel to the Gulf, first the nationals’ garments convey to you a sense of worth and dignity alien to Western streets. Then you turn on the TV and see their sitcoms…

Female characters in Gulf sitcoms are depicted in their houses as they are in reality in their houses, that is, unveiled. Does it make sense? You can’t see your neighbor’s hair (sometimes not even her face) but you can see a sitcom actress’s hair! It’s not okay to see your neighbor’s hair in real life but it’s okay on TV! Well, one could say it’s the same as elsewhere: you don’t see, unless by accident, your neighbors naked but you can watch programs with nudity…

More broadly, I guess that makes perfect sense if the veil (and what form of veil) is… a woman’s choice.

Which reflections lead me to the following cultural anthropological questions: Who can see whom’s hair or face? In what circumstances?

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A young Christian once described to me I don’t remember what annual meeting of Christian youth in France as a “get-down spot” (f*ckpad). Some acquaintances to whom I told it did not find that incongruous, while taking the testimony at face value. I wonder whether they would find it incongruous if someone described to them the Islamic hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca as a “get-down spot”…

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