From out at sea — or from inland, across the sun-baked desert — Doha sparkles like a bejeweled crown. Glinting and vivid, the Qatari capital resembles the tiara of a heavenly princess, dropped perhaps from the sapphire-blue sky onto this sandy, stony peninsula in the Persian Gulf. In the haze the city appears dreamlike, as if an oasis, imagined yet real, floating somewhere between the sea and dry land, the past and the future.
The word Doha means “rounded bays” to locals, a name referring to the shallow anchorages around which the city lies, which have been a shelter for people on this sometimes unearthly peninsula for a millennium. It’s hard to imagine the daily struggles faced by the Bedouin families that settled here in centuries past, especially when bottled water, exotic fruit, ice cream and other familiar fare is so readily available in the city’s shopping malls, international hotels and shiny high-rise towers.
Doha’s skyscrapers retain their shine thanks to the unending elbow grease of what are known locally as “spidermen” — workers who scale the towers, polishing, dusting and rinsing the desert sand away. From a distance they look as though they are suspended on ropes as fragile as gossamer, but far more fragile is the line between the city and the desert. Nonetheless, however hard nature tries to repossess it, Doha stands its ground.
A new future
Before I had ever set foot there, when I was asked about Qatar my offhand response was typically “red hot, rich and unremarkable”. And then I walked into its Museum of Islamic Art (Corniche; +974 4422 4444; www.mia.org.qa/en), and the “unremarkable” was instantly thrown out the window. This mesmerizing structure was designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who was probably chosen thanks to his zigzagging Bank of China tower which stands heroically in the jam-packed Hong Kong Island skyline and has become an icon — if not the icon — of the Fragrant Harbor.
The MIA, which stands on the bayside boulevard known as the Corniche, is equally surprising and compelling. Like an origami fortune-teller game, its geometric exterior conceals an interior of such unexpected beauty — somewhere between a great, ancient mosque and the complicated workings of a giant watch. And that’s just the lobby — the exhibition galleries reveal displays that are even more astounding.
In the 2000s, Qatar set about reinventing itself for a new future — one that needn’t depend on income from fossil fuel — as a destination for culture and sports. The MIA was one of the country’s first steps towards that goal. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the museum is located around the harbor from Doha’s central business district, or “West Bay”, but archways and vast picture windows afford splendid views of the high-rise downtown area, which has an unmistakable Miami vibe.
The restaurant, bars and lobby at one of West Bay’s nightlife hubs, the W Doha Hotel & Residences (West Bay; +974 4453 5000; www.whoteldoha.com), buzz into the early hours — all week long, it seems. This is where the young and hip head for chic, sensuous bedrooms and an on-trend bite to eat — at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market especially, where the French-born chef’s take on South-East Asian street food is a nightly crowd-pleaser.
Also read: Just opened: Shangri-La Hotel, Doha
The sands of time
Like most of Doha’s hotels, the W rocks on Friday and Saturday nights with overseas tourists and Qatari families enjoying a mini-break, as do other quarters in the city. But the W is a late-night partying destination; earlier in the evening, the hangout of choice is Souq Waqif (Al Jasra).
Though this traditional-looking bazaar was constructed just a decade ago, at about the same time as MIA, its roots are firmly entrenched in another era, deep in the sands of time. Traders and hawkers have gathered here, at this very locale, for centuries, since the days of a fishing settlement called Al Bidda.
The souq is relaxed and friendly, and credit goes to the designers who imbued it with the kind of moreish muddle that market-goers crave. The maze-like alleys and streets are shoulder-to-shoulder with shops selling fabrics and kitchenware, leather goods and trinkets. There are shisha cafés, cozy eateries and spice shops clouded with the earthy perfume of the Orient. And running between them all are porters-for-hire, wheeling barrows piled high with cooking pots, bags of cinnamon and armfuls of fabric.
Specialist stores to look out for include pearl dealers — one of the most interesting is run by sometime pearl-diver Saad Ismail Al Jassim (nicknamed Pahalwan), at the northern end of the walking street, or Souq Alley. There are gold merchants, traditional instrument dealers and garment makers, such as Bisht Alsalem on a lane by the gold market just off Souq Alley, where hushed teams of tailors embroider bisht, the Arabic man’s traditional cloak, with the finest golden threads. These elegant gowns can sell for anything up to QAR10,000 (PHP128,000).
The desert flower
The souq is the kind of place to lose yourself in and work up an appetite along the way. When you do start feeling peckish, just down a back lane near the bird market you’ll find a popular little bakery that turns out oven-fresh Iranian breads — you can watch them being kneaded and rolled — and just around the corner, Qatari Sweets (Bird Souq) uses a colossal cooking pot to make halwa, a fragrant, jam-like jelly jumbled with chopped pistachios. It’s an enticing treat that makes passers-by stop in their tracks.
At night, when the walking street is crammed with shoppers and strollers, The Village (Salwa Rd; +974 4444 6601; www.thevillageqatar.com) restaurant’s first-floor veranda is a plum spot to watch the bustling scene. This Turkish-Persian-Indian eatery (upstairs it’s known as The Grill) occupies an imposing arabesque building on the souq’s main street. Don’t be sceptical of its multi-cuisine menu — executive chef Ertan Afacan’s kitchen sends out excellent biryani, freshly baked bread or hosgeldin ekmegi, and velvety hummus and baba ganoush.
Early risers start the day at Shay Al Shoumous (Al Jasra St, Souq Waqif; +974 5551 5561), where Shams Al Qassabi prepares satisfying, local-style breakfast dishes. She’s an attentive, gentle-humored lady who busies herself in the kitchen, ensuring that her customers are well fed and her neighboring shop is well stocked with jars of pickles and spice blends. She has a job on her hands: on Friday mornings the shelves can be emptied, and the dining room full to capacity.
Her shop adjoins the Al Bidda (avanihotels.com/souq-waqif), one of the group of nine boutique hotels that punctuate Souq Waqif. Each hotel has its own personality, with comfortable, stylish rooms and worthwhile eateries. Al Jomrok, for example, is a go-to spot when the sun goes down — its rooftop Al Shuffra café has fine views — while Argan, the Al Jasra’s Moroccan restaurant, offers elegant cooking by chef de cuisine Zahira Bouazi. The dishes originate from her motherland, and she makes pastillas, couscous and tagines with impeccable ease.
There is always something new to find in the Qatari capital. In the same way that The Museum of Islamic Art opens to reveal its personality, Doha opens up for its visitors like a flowering qataf plant: from the desert’s bone-dry earth, it brings color, abundance and energy.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Smile magazine.