The 52 Places Traveler
At his latest stop, our columnist found a desert pearl-diving settlement transformed into a gleaming vision of the future, with the help of A-list architects.
Like a couch still wrapped in plastic, much of Doha, the capital of Qatar, is so new that it feels like touching it could ruin it. That’s not to say there aren’t traces of the past. Wandering through Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old marketplace, I was blissfully lost amid tiny shops selling spices, souvenirs and live birds. Down one dark alley, five men stared at their glowing cellphones, hookahs in hand. Around a corner, three cobblers stitched in unison. A left turn brought a burst of color and the scent of sandalwood. A woman, covered head to toe in black chiffon, sat behind a table filled with perfumes and incense.
Then, just a block north of the market, I hit the wide, waterfront Corniche. Above me, the skyscrapers of West Bay glittered, as if to say, “Not that. This.”
Doha, where dust and sand meet the electric blue of the Persian Gulf, feels improbable. Over the last four decades, the city — which began as a fishing and pearl-diving settlement — has transformed into a gleaming vision of the future, with the help of A-list architects paid out of coffers filled with oil and natural gas money. Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Alejandro Aravena, Arata Isozaki: It’s as if Qatar consulted the list of winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and invited them all to town.
This wasn’t my first time in Doha. My parents lived here a few years ago, and I occasionally visited. Most memorable were the buildings: the Museum of Islamic Art, an I.M. Pei creation, jammed with traditional Islamic design elements, that is somehow boxy and sleek at the same time; Jean Nouvel’s Burj Doha, a 761-foot skyscraper that’s unavoidably phallic, but still elegant thanks to the intricate latticework that covers its exterior. Elegant, that is, until nightfall, when it lights up like your overeager neighbor’s lawn at Christmas.
On those earlier visits, there was a lot of space — space for the shiny, the new and the over-the-top. Those spaces are filling fast as the 2022 Soccer World Cup approaches, when Qatar, the host, will be in the limelight.
The desert rose
The main event during my most recent visit was the opening of the National Museum of Qatar, a building so ambitious that it took 18 years from conception to ribbon cutting. Designed by Mr. Nouvel — the French architect behind that monument to virility mentioned above, as well as the United Arab Emirates’ mind-bending Louvre Abu Dhabi — the National Museum was inspired by the “desert rose,” the clusters of sand and crystals found in the region’s arid salt basins. “Totally irrational,” Mr. Nouvel, who was in town for the museum’s opening, called the formation — and, by extension, his design.
Hundreds of sand-colored interlocking discs surround an expansive courtyard and a newly restored royal palace. It can be hard to know where to look, as the building seems to be in constant motion, a forge spewing out discs in an engulfing, entropic pattern. Inside, the building is dizzying: I challenged myself to find a right angle and failed.
But as a museum, what’s on display counts even more. The permanent exhibitions, which chart the country’s history from prehistoric times until the present day and into the future, are smartly displayed.
“We wanted to build a museum with a heart,” said Sheikha Amna bint Abdulaziz bin Jassim Al-Thani, the director of the new museum. To do so, locals were asked what they wanted to see, she said.
Things to know
Alcohol is tough to come by in Qatar because of religious restrictions. The only bars you’ll find are at 4- or 5-star international hotels, and don’t be surprised when you’re asked for your passport to get into them. You’ll pay around $15 for a pint of Heineken. Good excuse for a detox?
There’s another Doha, one that is packed with migrant workers and has, in my opinion, the best food in the city. Try one of the branches of MRA, where the South Indian lunch buffet will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about all-you-can-eat Indian restaurants. On my last night, I was taken by a new friend to another great spot: Musherib, a neighborhood near Souq Waqif that is full of bare-bones restaurants with food from across the world, and old apartment buildings that offer a glimpse of Doha 30 years ago. Head straight to Nepali Kitchen for momos and a lunch thali.
Like Sydney and San Francisco, Doha is most beautiful from the water. For a trip on a traditional wooden dhow, don’t fall for the touristy options, like the overpriced 30-minute group ride on offer at Katara Cultural Village. Instead, head to the Corniche and bargain with the dhow operators. You can get an entire boat to yourself (or your group) for between $30 and $40 an hour.
Artifacts sit in free-floating glass cases, the sloping walls serving as projection screens for looping art films. I’d say the museum is everything it can possibly be, but for one glaring omission.
Qatar is home to 2.6 million people, but only around 12 percent are Qatari citizens. The rest are foreigners, dominated by migrant laborers who have come from South and Southeast Asia to work in construction sites, restaurants and oil refineries. At the museum, I searched and searched, but nowhere — not in the timeline charting the rapid development of Qatar, not in a thoroughly strange film tribute to liquefied natural gas — were these people mentioned. They were rendered invisible, all the more alarming considering they actually built the museum.
Qatar has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, yet a damning report from The Guardian in 2013 and subsequent investigations from human rights groups have revealed horrendous working conditions for migrants, including forced labor and a high rate of deaths among construction workers. In October 2017 the Qatari government vowed to reform its labor policy, including the “exit permit” requirements that are part of the kafala system, in which employees are tied to a single employer. It’s progress to be sure, but the erasure of this cornerstone of the country’s story in its national museum, is hard to overlook.
The building does a fair job of distracting you from all of that though, as did the opening reception, a star-studded affair featuring celebrities, dignitaries and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. The fanfare, complete with traditional dance performances and a pyrotechnic display, is indicative of the future this country is betting on — one that can continue to attract investment and tourism when the oil runs dry.
All the vanity projects, when taken together, amount to an outdoor architecture museum, and that alone makes Qatar — despite its labor controversies — well worth visiting. In fact, Doha’s 50 square miles are so packed with all-star names that some can feel like an afterthought. Arata Isozaki’s Qatar National Convention Center is monumental: a pair of tree trunks are a major part of the building’s facade. But just down the road, you could zip by a Damien Hirst installation in front of a women’s health center without even realizing it. An hour from the city center, in the middle of the desert and only accessible by four-wheel drive, is Richard Serra’s “East-West/West-East,” four upright steel plates spaced across a kilometer of sand and gypsum rock like the ruins of some mysterious civilization.
Over the course of my stay in Doha, I returned to the Qatar National Library, a pair of oblong glass diamonds attached at the point, three times. Designed by the firm of Rem Koolhaas, a Pritzker winner (surprise!), the space has become as much of a community hub as a research institution. When I visited on a Friday, the day of rest in the Muslim world, it was packed with families, students and polyglot workers on their day off. It’s as if, besides emerging as a new patron of the arts, Qatar is also, intentionally or not, redefining how we interact with that art — including the questions it makes us ask.