A Fast Old and New Weekend in Doha

A Fast Old and New Weekend in Doha

» Featured Columnists | By Alma Kadragic | June 23, 2010 10:05 AM ET

(DOHA, QATAR) -- When you live in the Gulf, vacations tend to be back home which in my case means flying 14 hours to New York, going to the theater and museums, visiting Orlando, and sometimes one or two other cities on the East Coast. With only a week off, I tend to go to London, sometimes Sarajevo where half of my relatives live. The other half is in Australia, 10 hours to Perth.

What I haven't done in five years of living in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE in the heart of the Gulf, is to visit the countries next door. Within an hour's flying are the main cities of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. Two hours brings me to Yemen or Mumbai, India. I have visited Beirut twice, about three hours, and Istanbul, closer to five hours.

This pattern of avoiding the nearest is not unusual for me or expatriates in general. I  spent 20 years working in Poland as a journalist and later an entrepreneur, and in all those years, I never once vacationed in the country, not because I don't like Poland, even though I have many friends there. But if I could grab a long weekend or better a week or two or more, it was to go home or to cities that felt more like home to me.

So the decision to spend the past weekend in Doha was a last minute way to celebrate my birthday. Doha is 35 minutes from Abu Dhabi in Qatar, a country that I knew about only as the home of Al Jazeera and the Doha Debates. What drew me were two of the country's newest attractions: the Museum of Islamic Art and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

Both were inaugurated in 2009, and they are related because the first Doha Tribeca Film Festival took place at the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M.Pei on the edge of the water and built out of what look like giant rectangular concrete blocks. I wanted to see the collection of Islamic art which I had read about, and find out more about the Festival from a good source on the ground.  The Festival's Operations Manager is Jim Gold, an old friend from ABC News days who has had an interesting post-network career creating and organizing major news and media events.

The Museum of Islamic Art is a beautiful building that overshadows the collections inside. However, inside and out, it is worth a visit. I spent close to three hours there Friday afternoon which is the beginning of the weekend in the Gulf. It wasn't crowded, and I was happy to see families, mainly Indian or Arab - some Qatari, immersing themselves in pages of calligraphy, many with illustrations. Exhibits are labeled in English and Arabic,  and each room is identified at either end by a small poster that explains the links between the displays.

Highlights of the collection for me are the Persian carpets with intricate designs of people, animals, and plants in colors that remain strong today even after 500 years. Examples of exquisitely tooled and inlaid wood doors and shutters are displayed as well as numerous bowls, plates, and other earthenware from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Spain which maintained a tradition of Islamic art long after the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the last Moorish stronghold in 1492.

In a way, the Museum typifies what I found in Doha that I hadn't expected: the old along with the new. As far as I could see, none of the examples of Islamic Art date from later than early 1800s. The vast majority seem to be from the 11th-16th centuries. They live in an iconic one-year old building: state of the art modern to preserve state of the art old.

My first glimpse of the Museum was from across the road at the Souq Waqif which was completed three years ago but looks traditionally Arab, two stories at the most with alleys upon alleys of tiny shops selling tourist items and coffee, tea, sweets; coming out of any alley, I see long rows of cafes and restaurants with empty outdoor tables and chairs. Now is not the best time for tourism in the Gulf. The temperature exceeds 100 degrees  daily; the only question is whether humidity will be low around 50 or way up in the high 90s. Inside, however, are air conditioning, good food, and people.

The urban planners of Doha seem to be committed to expressing traditional culture in public spaces. Another example is the Cultural Village that is under construction. I was able to get a preview of what it will look like, a huge area with traditional low buildings where the Doha Tribeca Film Festival's offices will be located and other non profits like the Association of Engineers, along with a mosque, theater, restaurants, and gift shops. At the center is the huge amphitheater stadium that will seat 5000 people for various big events.

As you drive back to West Bay where most of the hotels and new office towers are located, you pass one tower that exemplifies old and new. Superimposed on the outside are window and corniche motifs that recall traditional construction and in front is a low wall that exemplifies it.

In Abu Dhabi, I hear all the time about the importance of preserving traditional Emirati culture. It is a major concern of the emirate and the national government leaders. However, although the new buildings sprouting everywhere are often beautiful towers, usually demonstrating no expense spared, the city doesn't seem to be creating buildings that speak of heritage.

 I found the contrast striking. While I prefer to stay in the UAE because after five years, I'm only beginning to get to really know it, I am looking forward to my next visit to Doha for the Film Festival, October 26-30, when in addition to seeing exciting new films, I plan to sit outside at some of those restaurants at Souq Waqif.

(Credit Heidia Ahnsman/DFI for photos of Night Skyline, Museum of Islamic Art,  Souq Waqif, Old and New)

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