What It Was Like Living in Qatar

It was 102 degrees when I entered a shopping mall in the middle of the desert.

The first thing I saw was an ice hockey rink.

Every year in Qatar, the Villagio Mall hosts the Desert Cup, which attracts club teams from all over the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.

As Time Out Doha describes it:

“The annual Desert Cup draws a steadily growing crowd, as people passing through the food court stop to see what on earth is going on on the ice. Most of the people over here in this part of the world know field hockey.”

In addition to sports arenas, the malls in Qatar (which yes, is a Muslim and extremely conservative country) also make for interesting window shopping: mannequins in short skirts, stores filled with Christmas decorations, and a Shake Shack.

The fact a Muslim country whose average summer temperature is 106 degrees has an international ice hockey league and Christmas trees was only one of many ironies I unearthed while living in Qatar.

But first, let’s backtrack.

Check out that little jut of land that’s circled on the map below.

That’s Qatar.

Its only land border is Saudi Arabia to the south, and the rest of the country is surrounded, or perhaps swallowed by, the Persian Gulf.

Qatar is the world’s richest country per capita in the world. And you barely need to walk five feet from your flight gate to realize it, with Hamad International Airport full of BMWs on display, Au Gold boutiques and Swarovski stores, and a handful of art exhibits.

Qatar’s total population is around 1.8 million, but only 278,000 of its inhabitants are Qatari citizens. The rest — roughly 1.5 million people — are expats.

And these expats are pretty much divided into two groups: highly paid professionals, and barely paid laborers.

Unlike the expats who work for banks and oil companies, Qatar’s migrant workers are bound to the Kafala System, which prevents them from leaving Qatar without their sponsor’s permission, and what Human Rights Watch has likened to “forced labor.” Employer consent is required to leave the country, change jobs, get a driver’s license, rent a home, even open a checking account. Not to mention the working and living conditions are absolutely terrible.

Essentially, it’s a slave state.

And here I was discovering the irony of it all —the ice rink in the desert — looking out my Uber’s window at an overcrowded bus filled with migrant workers, seeing their forlorn yet stoic faces against a flashy city skyline.

I was in Doha, Qatar for work. The six of us, who are typically in our New York City office, traveled 6,650 miles east — nearing our other 150 team members who work and are mostly from Nepal.

Our organization was in Doha to better understand the complicated geo-political relationship between Qatar and Nepal, to see how we could potentially build supporting our rural healthcare system into specific business and philanthropic models.

We were also there as a fun and productive off-site experience.
One month to live together, work together, and experience a new part of the world together.

And experience we did.

Although it was a work-intensive trip, there were weekends and weeknights to experience what Doha has to offer. The anthropologist in me was excited to actually feel like a Qatari, or at least try to experience the country through one’s eyes for a short while.

Like almost every other traveler, one of the things I look forward to most when experiencing a new place is the food (..unless it’s to Burkina Faso). I knew a lot of Qatar’s cuisine was heavily influenced by India and Iran, and wanted to fall fork-first into different rice and meat dishes to uncover new flavors and spices.

For the first few days, we mostly stayed at our hotel for a team retreat, so we were eating Mediterranean and American spreads from the buffets. Less than a week in, I finally asked a man from Egypt where the best place to get a meal in Doha was. His answer:

“Have you tried the steak house at the W?”

I learned that for a visitor like me, the food scene in Doha is actually not about the local grub; most of the wining and dining people experience is at upscale hotels.

So while I did have my fair share of Qatari mashboush and motebel, I also indulged in amazing Indian, Italian, and Mexican food. (And yes, steak.)

I had delicious salmon at a seafood restaurant, and ate a portobello and goat cheese salad on the 47th floor of The Torch hotel, which is a 360 degree rotating restaurant. And that Shake Shack I referenced at the beginning of the piece? Ate there too.

Hotel dining got real old real fast, and I first felt I was cheating myself of “experiencing Doha.” But as a Westerner visiting for a short while, perhaps I was actually doing it how I was supposed to.

Like most Muslim countries, alcohol is also illegal in Qatar. Instead of beer and wine, they serve mocktails and juice, my favorite being a tart lime spritzer. There was an alcohol get-around though: international hotels are allowed to serve alcohol to non-citizens — just at exorbitant prices so Qatari's can most likely protect their profit.

So what turned into a personal, one-month sobriety challenge quickly turned into a one-month inebriation challenge (we were staying at an international hotel), where I regularly enjoyed room service wine, poolside happy hours, and old-fashioneds with a view.

But every country needs its vice. So for the locals, instead of drinking, they smoke. A lot.

Hookah bars in Doha are as prevalent as regular bars in Manhattan. One of the most popular places to visit in Doha is the Souq Waqif — which means “the standing market” — and which also has ton of hookah.

That said, the main point of the Souq is to give tourists and locals alike a sense of Qatari tradition; it’s known for selling traditional garments, handicrafts, and souvenirs, along with the local food I’d been constantly looking for.

One of the alleyways in the Souq

But to return to irony, the market simply attempts to rejuvenate the memory of what Doha used to be: modern buildings were replaced with traditional-looking stores and streets, so visitors are surrounded by wood and clay instead of iron and steel.

The Souq is a re-imagination of old Doha, instead of a piece of history that had been left untouched overtime.

Over 60% of the Qatar’s population resides in Doha. Said otherwise, there is an odd tranquility to the nation outside of the city.

One weekend our team spent a weekend camping in the desert, that was also (perhaps ironically?) next to the ocean. To steal a rare moment of quiet, I walked out to the shoreline once the sun had set. Stargazing is one of my favorite things to do, and I was excited to be away from the bright city lights to see the sky.

In that brief moment while I was casually contemplating the meaning of my own life, it was hard to imagine that Doha was only an hour’s drive away.

The way I described the city to friends:

“Take the most impressive buildings in New York and squish them together. Make all the buildings flash different colored lights. Add construction.
That’s Doha.”

And here we are again: a flashy, loud city juxtaposed to a worn, silent desert.

Once we left the desert, it was back to our home — not only Doha, but our Marriott Hotel.

Living out of a hotel for a month was an experience in and of itself. I’ve kind of always been averse to hotels (#couchsurfing), but quickly was able to appreciate the good and patiently swallow the not-so good:

Pros: all your meals are cooked for you and you never have to make the bed.
Cons: you lose a sense of independence and laundry is really expensive.

Most mornings I either went running or swimming at the hotel, stealing an hour for myself where I could move and be alone with my thoughts. I created a morning routine of running five miles on the treadmill while staring out at the Persian Gulf, or swimming laps in the pool.

We also spent a good deal working out of the hotel, since our office was having electricity problems. When that happened, I would try to find new hotel nooks to get my work done.

We were staying in the outskirts of the city, so many more Qatari’s would come and host meetings in the main lobby. Men would sit around in their traditional garb, a long thoub, to smoke, drink coffee, and smoke some more.

They usually paid little, if no attention to me at all, while I desperately wanted to better understand their world.

Perhaps the point of living in Qatar is to always feel like an outsider, or more softly said, a guest. Yet for every Qatari I talked to, I talked to two Indians, or three Kenyans, or a handful of people from Iran or Pakistan.

And with any trip, there are tiny, day-t0-day moments and connections that often don’t seem like much, but with hindsight are what create your experience.

Sure, the weekend trip to the desert was amazing, and the other cultural attractions — tours of the Qatara Art Center, Museum of Islamic Art, and Sheik Faisal — really interesting.

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA)

But there was the cab driver from Ethiopia I met twice, and the Bangladeshi servers who always gave us extra cashews with our wine; our Pakistani driver, Jamir, who took us dune bashing, and our Bangaldeshi driver Sohel, who took us to our office every day;

the Nepalis who ran a falafel joint down the street from our office, and the Chinese trainer at the hotel gym who always talked to me about the Boston Red Sox.

By the end of the month, I think I started to get it. So much of Qatar seems to be what its overwhelming expat population carries with them. And in a way, it felt like our short time there was contributing to Qatar’s identity, its collective memory, its story.

At the Souq, there was a painting shop I enjoyed going to. It was a small store owned by a man from Syria, Muhammad, who spoke very little English. In what words he could use, he poignantly told me why he left Syria and how sad it made him feel knowing he couldn’t go back.

I went in a few times, always promising Muhammad I would purchase something during my final days in Doha. During those visits, I would speak English to him, because he asked me. I would tell him a word in English, and he in Arabic. Small lessons.

On my last day in Qatar, just like I promised, I came in to buy a painting. He had me sit down and drink karak chai with him and have another quick English lesson before I picked out my favorite piece of art.

I found the perfect painting, which was 110 QAR, or roughly 30 bucks. I explained to him that I was buying it for my best friend, who is also a painter.

“She is an artist too, so when I go places I always get her a painting.”

By the way his eyes softened, I knew he understood. He sat me down with another cup of tea, and said our friendship would be a “forever one.” He thanked me and shook my hand.

And then he handed me the painting, free of charge.

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