Written and Photographed by Patricia Schoene
When we told friends and family that my husband Stephen had accepted a job in Doha, Qatar, most replied, “Where?” To be honest, we had to check our world map, too. The tiny peninsula country that extends out from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf, depending on your allegiance) is smaller than Connecticut. Once known for its pearl divers, today Qatar is, by some measures, the richest country in the world, a powerhouse funded by its abundance of petroleum and natural gas. Over the past few decades, the ruling family of Qatar has been busy transforming the country into a modern center for the arts and education. As the designated host of the 2022 World Cup of Soccer, modern day Qatar is in a frenzy of activity that aims to carve a major metropolitan city out of a desert, thus creating demand for a variety of jobs—most notably, the one accepted by my husband.
Stephen was like a lot of people who make their living by building things. The Great Recession dealt quite a blow to the U.S. construction industry, and so the options for jobs close to home were limited. When Stephen accepted the job, we saw it as an adventure, since the location would present opportunities for travel to parts of the world we had never imagined seeing. He left for Doha in January of 2013 and stayed a year. I visited three separate times and stayed for about a month each visit.
On my first visit, as my plane approached Doha, the pilot encouraged passengers to look out the window at the city as we prepared to land; the site was a dazzling array of lights. The city center high-rises are a glitzy array of sky-scrapers, each with its own type of illuminated bulbs and windows forming patterns over entire buildings—it was truly a spectacular sight. There was also a river of white lights lining a highway over the water, connecting tiny islands. It was a thrilling vision and certainly a product of a conscious effort to create “Doha’s Moment,” the title of an article I had read in a travel magazine describing the city’s awe-inspiring sites.
However, most Americans, myself included, have a very limited understanding of a place like Qatar outside of its external beauty. I knew only of the great wealth, the limited access to alcohol, and the expectation that women wear a hijab or cover themselves in a burqa. I was fearful that as a liberal American woman, I would be treated harshly. But the few Qataris I actually met were all very friendly and eager for us as Americans to learn about their culture.
Once I arrived, I was surprised by everything I saw and experienced. Inside the airport terminal, there were two serpentine lines for “other nationals.” I chose one and began the slow progress toward the officials checking passports, looking around at all the advertisements as I waited. These included two large billboards with pictures of Brad Pitt advertising Chanel No. 5, and another ad featuring Julia Roberts; DKNY, Clinique, and other Western designers for clothes, make-up, and fragrances lined the walls. I wondered at the power of these corporations and their ubiquitous presence even in this purportedly conservative nation. The only visible sign that I was in an Islamic country was the uniform that all the men working at the entry processing booths wore. Men in long white robes and white or red-checkered headscarves—garments known in Qatar as the thobe and the ghutra—were managing the crowd, directing each of us to the next available line. They conversed with each other in an Arabic language, of course, and spoke English when addressing the crowd. Just after I got in line, I was surprised to see hundreds of men enter behind me. A plane from Mumbai landed ten minutes after mine, and the airport was mobbed with men arriving from India coming to Doha to work. Stephen told me that this scene was repeated nightly, as hundreds of workers arrive daily, and each night the airport is teeming with new arrivals meeting friends and family already working in Doha.
After my visa was taken care of, I went on to quickly claim my bags and breeze with surprising ease through customs. When I reached the next room, again I saw what seemed to be hundreds of people from India waiting for the men who were in line behind me. I could not believe that this could be a daily event—I thought it amazing that Qatar could put that many people to work.
Behind the crowd, I could see Stephen, much taller than the masses, and we both smiled at each other and waved. Although Stephen had told me that no public displays of affection were allowed, I couldn’t resist embracing and kissing him in my excitement; it had been too long since I’d last seen him.
As we exited the building, he introduced me to our driver, Nashad. I learned later that Nashad’s wife and small children live in India and that he returns home to visit, typically only once a year. He had not brought them to live with him in Qatar because there would be no schools for the children to attend; there are no public schools, and he could not afford the private ones. This is typical for workers in Qatar. Nashad’s own father had worked in Qatar when he was a boy, and so this pattern of fathers working far from their families is something many in the world experience throughout their lives.
In the parking lot, I could see the chaos that Stephen had previously described—drivers turning onto lanes head-on into oncoming cars as people frantically honked their horns, crowds of cars trying to go in every direction. Stephen complimented Nashad and said he was the best driver in town. The local drivers are very aggressive, and the rules of the road seem far more chaotic than any I have ever witnessed.
The next day, Stephen reported to work at the construction site of a luxurious hospital, Sidra Medical and Research Center. According to the vision of the member of the royal family who is overseeing the construction, the facility would be like a seven star hotel with medical equipment. Stephen’s responsibilities were to manage some of the installation of furniture and equipment. All of Doha seemed to be under construction; this explained the hundreds of foreign workers who were arriving in Doha daily. Much has been said about the dangerous working conditions many of these workers endure. The heat, the rapid pace of construction, and the laws limiting the rights of foreign workers have all contributed to the deaths of far too many who came to Doha hoping to make a better living than they could at home. Recent reports from Qatar admit that hundreds of workers have died, likely due to the heat and the lack of safety protections on the construction sites. I never got to see the work camps where the many foreign workers are housed, but according to reports, they are crowded and miserable places to live. My hope is that the pressure international groups are applying will soon bring about major reforms so that workers there are safe and living in decent housing.
The more fortunate workers in Doha are professional drivers and those that make up the staffs of the hotels and restaurants. Every time I climbed into a cab, I asked the driver where he was from; most often he was from Nepal and had worked in Dubai before coming to Doha. Our favorite restaurant was located in an upscale hotel near our new apartment; it was one of the few places we could purchase a glass of wine, so we usually ate there on Thursdays, the night before the Sabbath, and Stephen’s one day off. The headwaiter, Gary, and his wife, who also worked in the hotel, were from Tacloban, Philippines, the city hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Their children were in Tacloban in the care of their grandparents when the typhoon hit, and so Gary and his wife were desperate to get home to find out if they all had survived. I could only imagine the fear that these two workers experienced being so far from their children when disaster hit. One evening at dinner, after they returned, Gary kept thanking God that his entire family, even their pig, had escaped harm.
Doha feels a bit like what the Wild West must have been when it was first being settled. There are new buildings going up everywhere, but there are also old and decrepit buildings that are moments away from crumbling.
The sidewalks are often made of brick that has come dislodged, making it treacherous to walk without paying attention to every step, and there seems to be little concern among drivers for pedestrians. Stephen assured me that if we stepped into the street, the oncoming cars will stop, but I nevertheless took a very cautious approach to crossing the streets.
While I was in Doha, Stephen and I walked a lot near the hotel where Stephen lived the first few months, which was in a working class neighborhood and far from the city center. Much of it was undergoing urban renewal, and many of the buildings were in a state of rubble, throwing the class difference in Doha into sharp contrast.
Another surprising aspect of life in Doha was that I saw very few women dressed in any particularly Islamic fashion. I soon discovered the reason; the majority of the people in Doha are not Qatari and are not of the Islamic faith. Most of the women are from the Philippines or India and dress like any modern western woman might. Many Qatari women do wear the hijab (a veil) and the abaya (a long black dress), which covers the typically Western clothes they wear underneath—designer jeans, designer shoes, and sophisticated purses.
I saw one burqa-clad woman shopping in a fabric store and handling a piece of glittery, shimmery gunmetal fabric suitable for a cocktail dress—and likely to be used for that very purpose.
This merging of traditional and contemporary lifestyles is at the very heart of Doha culture.
Unquestionably, the most beautiful building in Doha is the Museum of Islamic Art, a building designed by architect I. M. Pei and a truly wonderful example of the vision the Qataris have for Doha’s future. In addition to the impressive building, they have assembled an extensive collection of art from the religion. Stephen and I spent many afternoons wandering through the exhibitions. There are many museums in Doha, some still under construction, but it is clear that Qatar wants to be an international destination, luring visitors with its culture and commitment to great art.
Another favorite place to spend an afternoon and evening is the Souq Waqif, a restored traditional market made up of shops and restaurants of every kind. There, shoppers may purchase spices, shoes, mops, gold, parrots, falcons, carpets, and just about anything else you can imagine.
Many have asked if we felt safe in Doha, and my answer is—except for the very aggressive drivers—I felt very safe there. Guns are prohibited, alcohol is highly controlled, and crime is not tolerated. Many American students are now studying in Doha at their Education City, which includes, among others, campuses for Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A & for M, and Northwestern. Since we left in 2014, ISIS has emerged, and the tensions among various countries in the Middle East have increased The complex rivalries and alliances in the Middle East are difficult to understand, but Qatar is an ally of the United States, which maintains a military base—Al Udeid Air Base—just west of Doha. Another fact that I had been ignorant of until we decided to live in Qatar for a year. Spending time in this tiny Middle Eastern country, we came to a better understanding of the fascinating mixture of cultures, of the many foreign workers who live there and the sophisticated city that Doha is striving to be. By 2022, when the World Cup is played there, many people from around the world will travel to Doha to participate in this international event. Qatar is working very hard to make sure they are ready and to impress visitors with their accomplishments.