Monday 12 December 2011

Qatar’s capital glitters like a world city, but few feel at home

Along a skyline that feels as ambitious as it is ephemeral, there is a building named for its design — the Tornado. The renowned architect I. M. Pei built a museum here in a quest for the essence of Islamic architecture. Another tower, built by another famous architect, is sheathed in an exoskeleton and suggests a Saracen helmet.

“It’s a mimic of a city that could have been built anywhere,” an unimpressed Issa al-Mohannadi, an engineer who has been asked to create something different, declared as he gazed out his fourth-floor window. “What you’re seeing shouldn’t be our future.”

Doha is many things: a former backwater on the Persian Gulf that at one time had a pearling boat for every 350 residents; the capital of a country with enough natural gas to make those same people the wealthiest in the world today; and the seat of an emir determined to put his country on the map with brash foreign policy and the power of Al Jazeera, the satellite television news channel. It is also a city in search of an identity that still feels as shapeless as the tracts of sand interspersed between domed skyscrapers and the most improbable geometry.

The debate, of course, is not new. All the emerald cities on the Persian Gulf have to varying degrees struggled with tradition and modernity, as oil and gas created what a Qatari official called “Earth on Mars.” But nowhere else is the debate so pronounced, driven by so many billions of dollars, cluttered with so many visions and punctuated by so much criticism over what Doha, in some ways an accidental creation of a city, should look like.

Here is what it offers: a film festival, the World Cup in 2022, a new airport, a metro system and a Coffee Beanery with a menu in English, Arabic, Korean and Japanese. Here is what it lacks: an urban fabric, in a place where citizens are a tiny minority and legions of foreign workers toil in bleak conditions.

In the growing debate here, drawing in everyone from the emir’s wife to Qatar’s lone comedian, the question most often asked is whether a sense of the cosmopolitan can reflect the skyline and transcend the rootless globalism and commercialism that have so long stood as the Persian Gulf’s grasp at modernity.

Dubai, shimmering like a mirage, never had the money. Saudi Arabia, with a conservatism born of a Bedouin sense of life’s caprice, never had the ambition.

Doha now has both, and a determination to will a world capital into existence. “There is depth to the vision,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

Abdul Aziz al-Mahmoud is a rarity in Qatar — a novelist whose book has become a best seller, by standards here, since it was published last month. Set in the 19th century, the novel delves into the struggle between the British and littoral tribes that inhabited the Persian Gulf. Three years in the works, the book fills a gap, he said, in perceptions.

“The region didn’t appear from nowhere because of oil,” he said in an interview. “People lived here; they had their troubles and their happiness. We were not oil. Oil came to change our lives, but people were always here.”

Testaments to that history feel like oases in a city of more than a million that numbered just 12,000 a century or so ago. Suq Waqif is one of them. Once a labyrinthine seaside market where Qataris traded fish and goats, the market was abandoned, then left to crumble. Five years ago it was rebuilt with a faithfulness to detail that recreated even its shoddiness. Exposed timber and reed roofs look worn and white-washed walls antique, even though they are not. Hawking everything from SpongeBob sandals to ceremonial Syrian swords, the shops are like the country: owned by Qataris and run by South Asians.

Mr. Mahmoud said he would take friends from abroad there to see a representation of the essence of a bygone culture, but he would not normally visit the suq.

“It’s about a sense of belonging,” Mr. Mahmoud said. “Qataris go there occasionally, but it’s not where they go and socialize and interact, no.”

Qataris number just 225,000 of a population of 1.8 million, and interaction between them and the rest feels as lifeless as the miles of plastic grass that line the boulevards in Education City. Mr. Mahmoud describes it as a “hidden enmity,” where Qataris feel comfortable not at the Islamic Museum or Jean Nouvel’s latest addition to the skyline, but rather in a majlis, one of the traditional segregated salons that stand as a fixture of social life.
“It’s like fragmented, divided communities,” he said. “They don’t talk to each other. Somehow we have to design a melting pot to make them all feel at home.”

Mohammed Kamal has wrestled with that question of a sophisticated city. Imbued with an earnestness that belies his self-declared standing as Qatar’s lone comedian, he believes humor can create “openness and confidence” in culture. Confidence, he suggests, is the foundation of cosmopolitanism.

“I want our culture to be O.K. with laughing at ourselves,” he said “It’s better to laugh at ourselves then wait for someone from outside to make jokes and laugh about us.”

His task is not easy. The police told him that religion, sex and politics were off limits. “What else is stand-up comedy?” he asked. A Qatari woman threatened to hurl her shoe at him when he imagined a pampered Qatari woman working as a flight attendant. Sometimes his bite goes too far, as when he scolded Qatari men for threatening to revoke the visas of expatriates any time an argument erupted. But he managed to stage a comedy show in February, and it drew 1,200 people — Qataris in front, expatriates in back.

Not even Dubai, a city built on success in marketing an image, feels as self-conscious as Doha. Banners read “Rediscover the essence of our community” near a cultural village named Katara, with sparsely peopled offices for the Qatar Fine Arts Society, Qatar Photographic Society, Qatar Music Academy and Doha Film Institute. Buses bear ads that read “From Qatar to a Greener World” — this in a city built on exploiting one of the world’s largest gas fields. Museums compete with any in the world, and Education City has attracted branches of six American universities.

“I think they are hoping that with time, all this will be a big component of the Qataris’ or the nationals’ lives,” said Seif Salmawy, managing director of Bloomsbury in Qatar, which is seeking to make the country a publishing force in English and Arabic in the Middle East. “As it stands, I think it has little to do with their actual lives.”

His colleague Andy Smart added, “You need a city center for an urban life.”

(Source: The New York Times)

No comments:

Post a Comment