Before last week, I’d never been to Doha before. I’d travelled to Europe via Dubai a few times but had always just spent the requisite few hours in the airport (with A/C) and carried on from there.
I’d never really felt the need to step out into the Middle Eastern heat, but because I have family in Doha, I decided to fly to Kuala Lumpur via Qatar, and spend a night in the city to break up the journey.
And it was totally worth it.
Things to do in Doha #1: Eat at the Souq
After being very kindly collected from the airport by Maritsa (who is my sister-in-law Ilze’s sister in-law) I went to her family home to get showered and enjoy the A/C, before heading out to the Souk Waqif.
It was HOT.
So hot it’s difficult to get a gauge on actually how hot. I felt like I could manage to be outside for a little bit, but I definitely felt what was apparently 40 degrees Celsius (even though it felt more like “sauna 40 degrees” than “outside in the bush in 40 degrees” to me).
I almost felt like it wasn’t that bad, but it was only because I didn’t have to bear it for too long.
Luckily we could wander the cooler passageways of the souq before going to Café Tasse to eat shakshuka, flatbreads and falafel for lunch. I don’t usually eat flatbreads, but they were delicious, and so was the shakshuka, which I spooned onto quarters and ate with my hands. The falafel was also incredible. Almost like mini falafel donuts, they were crispy and filled with parsley (I think, or something else green). The combination was fantastic, and I definitely ate more than I needed to.
It was that good.
Things to do in Doha #2: Check out the falcons
I knew that falcons were/are a big part of Arabic culture, especially after watching that one Human Planet episode where the falcons keep tabs on the rampant pigeon population in and around all of the epic skyscrapers in Dubai.
But I didn’t realise that you could actually go shopping for them, until we took a walk behind the souk, and stepped into a retail version of a falcon mew.
It’s bizarre to walk into a room full of birds of prey perched on beams about half a metre off the ground. Some of them had their leather hoods on (which is clearly a craft on its own, judging from the intensive focus of the man cutting leather strips in the corner).
Some, on the other hand, looked a little less regal. Less “I’m wearing a finely crafted headdress” and more “bleary eyed with mouth open”.
It was quite an experience to walk around and see them, uncaged. If they didn’t look so docile, and weren’t tied down, I definitely would have thought more about the fact that they could have all very possibly clawed my face off.
Things to do in Doha #3: Visit the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA)
Ilze had recommended the MIA to me already so I had to go and see it, and I wasn’t disappointed.
(It also helped that it was amazingly cool inside).
Walking around the exhibitions I was struck by a profound sense of quiet and calmness, which was enhanced by the dim lighting, obviously set to preserve all of the ancient artefacts.
But more than that, I thought about Islamic culture in a way that I hadn’t before while walking around a vast collection of items made with dedicated attention, in places I know very little about.
(Coming from the person who was the laughingstock of the Exclusive Books Cavendish Square night staff team in 2007 for not knowing what Eid was, I mean very little).
I also thought about how many of these different cultures had probably developed in intense desert heat, where being precise was incredibly important, so as not to waste energy.
Even the map keys on the side of the walls were a testament to this: just a simple visual highlighted indication of where you were in the exhibition, no text needed.
Standing underneath the beautiful dome in the foyer, I could also feel how much expense and effort went into creating the space, which is quite mind-boggling considering that the museum is totally free.
Things to do in Doha #4: Wonder at the marvels of contemporary capitalism at The Pearl
It’s more than obvious that there is an abundance of wealth in Doha, so much so that limiting any kind of expenditure doesn’t seem to be a concern.
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my mind: How do you power a city’s worth of A/C in a Middle Eastern summer? How is it possible to run a variety of international restaurant chains without being able to grow large scale food crops locally?
It’s mind-blowing. And then there are all of the cars, all of the petrol stations that are apparently always full, and The Pearl.
A man-made island, The Pearl was understandably quite empty when I visited because of the summer heat (and because a lot of expats leave during the summer months). But it was eerily empty.
A mall full of international designer stores with pretty much no one in them. A closed Spinney’s supermarket with a range of non-perishable items on the shelves, which were covered in dust.
Of course, this probably had something to do with the recent blockade (or something else), but when I consider how much lack there is back home, seeing all of that food just sitting there (with no one seemingly worried about it) was quite something to contemplate.
Things to do in Doha #5: Visit the art galleries at Katara
Katara was pretty empty when I went, because it was SO HOT. But even so, I could tell that it would be a really fun place to visit in the cooler months (especially after seeing all of the epic inflatable slides next to the water).
I unfortunately didn’t manage to visit all the galleries as I was only there for an hour, but I did walk around Al Markhiya Gallery and was particularly impressed by the works of Melika Hashemi and Mohammad Awwad which give a very interesting (and trippy) insight into evolving Islamic culture.
I also walked past a number of other exhibitions on my way out, which judging by their titles also dealt with similar themes of identity, and which looked really interesting.
Apart from that, the gold tiled mosque and the marble amphitheatre were also something to see.
Is A Layover in Doha Worth It? Yes!
There’s a lot going on in Doha that I couldn’t even begin to get my head around after only being there for only two days, but overall, I can definitely recommend venturing out into the city.
Especially if you happen to have generous family members like Ren and Maritsa, who make a fuss of you, and even treat you to a dinner at the fancy Shangri-La hotel on your first (and only) night, and then take you to look at the city lights from the dhow harbour afterwards.