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Last post from Doha: Five Stories

I’m walking out of the mall where I’ve bought a pineapple and two cans of soda. Sitting on a concrete road barrier in front of the mall is the long-haired guy with the Fu Manchu moustache. He was standing next to me half an hour ago as we watched the hockey game, and we traded a few words about the teams playing. I sit down, offer some pineapple, which he refuses, and ask him what he’s doing in Doha.

He’s Filipino, and has been in Doha for a year, working as a glazier. He’s trying to decide whether to stay in Doha or to give Dubai a try. “I make 1200, but the contract says I get 1300 plus 200 for food. If I get that, I will stay.” To translate: that’s 1200 Qatari riyals a month, or $328. His job likely includes housing in a worker’s dorm and some food – he’s waiting for the bus to take him back to the dorm, for a riyal. The mall is a good source of cheap entertainment – there are hundreds of expat workers lining the ice rink as I watch expat Canadians crash into each other.

“How much money do you send home?” I ask. I’ve already guessed the answer.

“800 or 900 most months. More if I have overtime.” The money might be better in Dubai, he’s heard, but it can be more expensive to live. If he gets the raise, he’s staying in Qatar.

I take a taxi to my next stop for eight riyals, or about $3… or about what my friend can spend a day and still send money home. The taxi passes the site of the Dubai Tower, which will be over 80 stories high. That’s a lot of glass to install.

“How hot does it get in the summer in Qatar?” I ask a friend over dinner.

“Officially, never over 50C. There’s a law on the books that says that laborers have to stop working if it’s over 50C. You’ll see the weather report hover at 49 degrees, but it never seems to go over 50.”

50 centigrade is 122 farenheight. It’s not a dry heat. Doha is on the ocean, and humidity in the summer runs 80%. That’s “three steps and drenched in sweat” hot.

“You can’t turn on your shower in the middle of the day in the summer. The sun will heat the water in the tank on your house to the point where you’ll burn.”

We eat songbirds, deep fried and glazed in honey. They look like tiny chickens, and you eat them bones and all.

Small mosque, Doha, Qatar

I work out in the hotel gym and am getting dressed in the locker room. The Qatari men are changing in private cubicles to one side of the dressing room; North Americans and Euros are sitting on benches, pulling on socks, toweling their hair. The conversation touches on cars, car crashes, tennis lessons, the kid’s semester in France and to the best place for a contract.

“Jim just got back from Amman, turned down a long-term there.”

“That’s hard to believe. Amman’s as good as it gets in the Shell system. You can make more money in a place like Nigeria, but the quality of life isn’t as good. Or you can go somewhere with better quality of life, but the money’s not as good. Amman is as good as it gets as far as bang for the buck is concerned.”

I lace my shoes, walk out of the locker room into the lobby of the health club. There’s a bar with Heineken and Guinness on draft, an italian restaurant, a pool table, signs for classes in yoga and karate. It’s packed with non-Arab families, the women playing tennis, the men shooting pool, the kids sitting on the stoop outside and horsing around. It’s a suburban country club, fifty paces from the Sheraton, inside the hotel walls.

When I last came to Doha, I asked people where to go and what to do. Most of my friends recommended the City Center Mall. This year I ask what’s new. Everyone has the same response – a slightly blissed out expression on the face, and the reverent announcement, “There’s a new Virgin megastore.”

It’s not the music – you can download that. And there are decent movie channels on the satellite. It’s the books. “Sometimes when I go to Europe, I go to a bookstore and just stand there, soaking in all those books for a little while. It feels good just to be near them.”

This friend home-schools his kids, a good decision since the Australian-run school is now over-enrolled and it’s very difficult to get your kids a place there. “But it’s so hard to homeschool here. You have to order all the books from abroad. And it’s hard to take the kids places – there’s only one museum, and there are no libraries.”

There are plans for a library, though. The largest library in the world. “It might have 10,000 copies of the same book,” another friend speculates, “but it will be the largest library in the world.”

Satellite dishes at Al Jazeera HQ

The Mercedes speeds down the Corniche, taking us to the airport, to a business and first-class terminal that’s entirely separate from the main terminal. (When you fly business class on Qatar airways you’re unlikely to see a coach passenger – they take a separate bus from a separate terminal and board at the rear of the plane.) We pass gleaming twenty-story buildings, the unfinished frames of forty-story buildings, signs announcing the future site of eighty-story buildings.

Just before the turn to the airport, there’s a portrait of the Emir covering the front facade of a twenty story building. He’s got a confident look, a slight smile, the sort of glint in the eye that might come from knowing that you’ve got the world’s second largest supply of natural gas under your nation and a big US military base across town. Or maybe it’s a smile from the knowledge that much of the gas revenue is going into a vast investment portfolio, with the goal of ensuring that half the nation’s revenue comes from sources other than energy by 2015. Or from knowing that his visage will soon be dwarfed by even larger towers, built by Sri Lankan steelworkers and Filipino glaziers to house American oil companies.

We turn toward the airport. Beyond the terminal buildings and runway, there’s nothing. Literally nothing. No buildings on the horizon, no features beyond sandy ground and the occasional rock. Nothing but potential.

Photos from Qatar, March 2007.
Photos from Qatar, February 2006.

5 thoughts on “Last post from Doha: Five Stories”

  1. Pingback: Hockey » Blog Archives » A Great Time Of Year

  2. Great reporting, a mix of the journalist and sociologist eye. And, as always, a dosage of the humanist somewhere in the mixture. I have never been in that part of the world, but now I feel I have. Thanks!!

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