Qatar will be the 25th country I will visit.
“In the next few hours, my life will change,” I told my friend on the phone. It was time to return to Chicago, to the real world. It has been six months and five days since the last time I was in America.
I had an 18-hour layover in Qatar. After all these months in Iraq, I deserve any luxury that comes my way. My journey home had started.
After a two hour flight from Baghdad, I landed in Qatar. I’ve never seen such an impressive airport. It is a source of national pride for Qataris.
I proceeded to the passport control. Upon arrival as an American, I paid $20 for a tourist visa. My friend Abdul Latif was waiting for me. He has been working in Qatar for about three years. As we drove to the city, we were sharing updates about our lives and I said: “I wonder if my negative attitude about Qatar will change after my visit.”
I started asking him all kinds of questions about Qatar. And he answered, giving me his perspective as an American expat. Apparently, he enjoys working there. One of the odd things he mentioned was that Qatar treats teachers very well. He knows of an American couple that teaches English in one of the Universities. They get paid well and have an impressive apartment as part of their package.
We drove to Souq Waqif – which means “standing market” – to have some lunch. There are numerous shops selling souvenirs, traditional garments, handicrafts, and a few shisha lounges. The Souq is one of the last remaining authentic features in Doha. The area is popular with locals, tourists, and expats alike.
The novelty of this scene that we are two Americans having lunch at an Iranian restaurant, together with other Iranians, being served by a Filipino waiter in an Arabic country. It’s a true mix of cultures, eating and working together during a time when President Trump is raising political tension with Iran. It all makes for a very charming picture now. But if war broke out between Iran and America, I wouldn’t want to bet on peaceful co-existence continuing, between the Iranian and American ex-pats living in Qatar.
I told Abdul Latif, Qatar has a relatively negative reputation in Iraq. Most Shi’a Iraqis believe that Qatar is one of the countries that is financing ISIS activities in Iraq.
“What is your take on that?” I asked.
“Well, Qatar is not financing ISIS, but kind of paying a tribute so problems stay away from them, similar to store owners paying mobsters protection money.”
“Interesting spin,” I said. (Most of these Qataris don’t realize that they are looked at negatively in Iraq.)
After lunch, we went on a tour of the city, which appears to be under construction in preparation for hosting the FIFA 2022 World Cup. We passed by the soccer stadium that will showcase opening night – very impressive.
Then we visited the Villaggio Mall with its VIP public bathrooms. As we parked, some Indian (or maybe they were Palistani, a prime example of a country’s inequality/class) car wash workers came and offered to wash our car. It was an interesting concept – an extra add-on to the shopping experience. Wealthy Qataris probably never wash their cars themselves. As for the mall, with its canals and gondolas, it emulated the city of Venice.
It was evening by the time we left the mall. It was time to go check the Qatar Corniche with its nice panoramic view of the skyline. It was Thursday night, the start of Qatar’s weekend. Many people enjoy promenading on the corniche. I said people, but in reality, it was 95% males walking around. Just walking and probably drinking Coca Cola. I guess, in this part of the world, that’s part of an ultimate weekend.
Abdul Latif pointed to the buildings of Qatar’s skyline and said, “the majority of these high-rises are empty.” I guess he was inferring that there is a real estate “bubble”.
I asked him if there is any other place to see before I leave. “Not really”, he replied. Apparently, one can tour Qatar in less than 24 hours.
We then drove to the DoubleTree hotel by Doha’s Old Town. I noticed posters of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his father in many of the buildings and hotels in the capital. The son took over the kingdom from his father after a bloodless coup d’etat. I actually thought it was both ironic and funny.
It has become customary in many Arab nations for the ruler to prepare his son to take over after his death. Pictures of the son would be next to the father in most public buildings. It’s a not so subtle form of propagandic intimidation – “my son will take over after my death. Don’t even think about it!”
But wait, I started to see a parallel with American politics. It was first George “H” Bush and then we had to deal with “W” (on the Republican side). For the Democrats, it almost became the husband and wife show of the Clintons. As for the Trumps, I don’t know what to make of this just yet, but it seems that he is preparing his daughter for the Presidency. It looks like an Arab style nepotistic power grab.
When I arrived at the hotel, I found out that there was a nightclub and to my surprise, they served alcohol and because I heard music, probably allowed dancing. I wondered if, like in some other Arab countries, there would be signs that said “No Man to Man Dancing”. I wasn’t able to satisfy my curiosity because I couldn’t get in the club. They had a strict dress code and I didn’t have my dress shoes with me. I found the entire thing to be shocking – tantamount to finding a nightclub inside a prison in Venezuela.
I had scheduled a shuttle the night before to take me to the airport at 5:30 AM the next day. As I was waiting in the hotel lobby for it to arrive, the concierge asked if I was waiting for a taxi. I said: “No I’m waiting for the hotel shuttle to the airport.”
“Yes sir, the car is waiting for you.” He replied.
The van “shuttle” I was expecting turned out to be a 2016 Audi A8. I guess in rich countries like Qatar, words like “shuttle” are not exactly lost in translation, but take on a different meaning.
Later, when I reached the C10 gate, Qatar Airway’s Boing 777-300ER was waiting to fly me home. As my flight was taking off, I realized that my pre-conceived notions of Qatar still needed more thought, because as we all know processes and politics in the Middle East are complicated, to say the least.
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