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Desert Oasis

IN THE TINY MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRY OF QATAR, ANDREW MCCARTHY FINDS A FASTCHANGING CAPITAL CITY, AND THE ENDURING MAGIC OF THE DESERT.

From Travel + Leisure

From Travel + Leisure

By Andrew McCarthy

A little bloodless coup isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Look at Qatar. In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani ousted his father and took the country’s reins. He has transformed this former pearl-fishing outpost, already one of the richest countries in the world thanks to oil and natural gas.

Set on a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf, bordered on the south by Saudi Arabia, tiny Qatar—the size of Connecticut— is transforming itself into the Gulf’s “next” destination. Hoping to build on the success of Abu Dhabi and learn from the mistakes of Dubai, the capital city of Doha is pitching itself as a player on the world stage. I. M. Pei was called in to design the Museum of Islamic Art. The skyline, with its perfume bottle–shaped towers, is being rewritten every day. Cranes litter the air. Satellite branches of American universities have taken root. After a massive PR campaign, the country won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Doha is looking to the future.

But all this rapid progress comes with a price. “Everyone is a little crazy here,” Kevin, a recent immigrant from Kenya, informs me. “How could they not be? Just five years ago they were riding camels, and now you give them a V-8 engine.” Out here, where a gallon of gasoline is half the price of a bottle of water, the trappings of Western culture are being imported nearly as fast as the Filipino and Indian immigrants who are charged with maintaining them. Foreigners outnumber Qatari nationals six to one. “And I don’t know why they need to reclaim land when there’s all this empty desert just sitting here,” Kevin points out. But things in Doha have their own logic.

The Pearl-Qatar, the 988-acre man-made island Kevin is specifically lamenting, has condos, hotels, three marinas with mooring for 1,002 boats, and more than 2 million square feet of retail space—much of it still sitting empty. Over near the Rolls-Royce showroom, the French institution Les Deux Magots has a satellite café at the water’s edge. The rack of lamb is tasty, but a signature dessert of mille-feuille is conspicuously absent from the menu. The maître d’ shrugs. “The chef is French, but everyone else is from Indonesia,” he says. “No one can make it to the standard we need, so…” His lips purse. “We are part restaurant, part school.”

Over at Souk Waqif, Doha’s recently rebuilt main marketplace, camels loiter in a pen beside a parking lot peppered with Ferraris. Inside the ramparts, the lanes are crooked. The walls sag. The stalls overflow with fabrics and appliances, birdcages and the smell of spices. The intent here was to create a souk in the old style, and while I can’t help but feel a bit like I’m on a Hollywood back lot, it’s a relief to see a gesture toward Arab culture in an Arab land. The place swarms with local life on a Friday night.

Across town, in the heart of the Aspire Zone, I enter Villaggio, a sprawling shopping outlet. A canal—with gondolas—snakes its way under a ceiling painted full of puffy Venetian clouds. It’s the place to see and be seen for the younger Qatari set. Teenage girls wander past Marks & Spencer and Café Lenôtre, texting in their black abayas and giggling behind their niqabs. Missi, a professional soccer player from Cameroon, stands in line beside the Western Union stall with two dozen other immigrants, waiting to wire money home. “It’s a strange life here,” he says.

Curious about just what things were like before all this recent building, I head south. Outside the city, the desert quickly re-exerts complete control. We drive across parched flats and over 40-foot-high dunes. The expansive silence and stillness are humbling in a way no city, however modern, can approach. I sleep under the stars beside the inland sea as the water laps up to the sand. A purple dawn surrenders to an unyielding sun, and I’m chased back to the airconditioned comforts of Doha. On re-entry, the city feels both foolish and fantastical, the way society does when you return from unadorned nature.

But what really makes Doha seem so otherworldly is that its outlandish growth isn’t the result of natural expansion so much as mandated development. The people may not be here yet, but, the hope is, they’re coming. What it lacks in organic process, Doha makes up for in earnest hospitality. I feel welcome and safe wherever I go. People go out of their way to see that all my desires are attended to (but given that everything is so new, they often have no idea how to help me find whatever I’m looking for). There’s an innocence here that’s easy to fall into.

The sun quits for the day through a hazy sky, and I walk through the park that lines the Corniche, Doha’s busiest street, along the crescent-shaped bay. Sitting on the terrace at Al Mourjan restaurant on the edge of the Persian Gulf, I feel a slight breeze moving the hot night air. I lean back, puffing on a water pipe filled with rose-scented tobacco, and watch a dhow drift by, its white sail reflecting the light of the waning moon. The neon of the crazyquilt skyline is over my shoulder. I sip my mango juice and watch a henna tattoo artist beside me draw an intricate pattern across the fingers of a young Lebanese girl. The singer on the nearby stage launches into an Arabic translation of “My Way.” The limestone walls of I. M. Pei’s museum are glowing a radiant orange across the bay. I take the small tongs and gently rotate the charcoal atop my shisha and puff away; a smile spreads across my face. It might all be an arbitrary invention out here in the middle of a barren desert, but there’s something about this place that has gotten under my skin—I’m glad I was here near the start.

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JOIN ANDREW McCARTHY ON TOUR

Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820

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