A Splendid Souq and a Singing Dune

Four days and counting until I pull the plug for six weeks and Om it up in Rishikesh! Meanwhile, Michael and I dashed south to Qatar for a few days, to check out Option #2 for Getting Out of Dodge (#1 being Bahrain). Doha, Qatar, is less than four hours away from our home, and it's an easy drive across the desert. More traffic moves north from our compound towards Dammam and the causeway to Bahrain, so it was fun to see what it was like heading in the opposite direction. The road skirts the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter, which covers the southern portion of Saudi Arabia in sandy nothingness: no roads, no power lines, no villages, nothing.

Shortly before we reached the Qatar border, we turned east and there on the left was the vivid, greenish-blue Persian Gulf. It took a good 30 minutes to navigate through the various border checkpoints and cross into Qatar, and then about another hour to get into Doha, its capital city. On the road, we noticed that maybe 20% of all cars were white Toyota Land Cruisers with orange or gold designs on the side. After a day or so, it became a joke: Look! A white Toyota Land Cruiser! Doha is really big on traffic circles (terrifying!) and sometimes there would be three or four white Toyota Land Cruisers making their way around a circle at the same time.

Our hotel was a tiny place, tucked into a neighborhood that seemed to be full of car dealerships, repair shops, and residential apartments. Not such a happening spot. We are non-smokers, so when we got into our room, redolent with cigarette smoke and stocked with ashtrays, I called down to the lobby and asked to be moved to a non-smoking room. "Yours is a non-smoking room," I was told. "But it has ashtrays in it," I said. "Oh, every room has ashtrays," came the reply. Ah.... So, we marinated in a room that was completely impregnated with stale cigarette smoke, just like everybody used to do before there were non-smoking accommodations in the U.S. The air quality index was helped somewhat by opening the door to our little balcony. So we left it open when we slept, but that plan had a drawback as well. The first call to prayer of the day comes at around 5:00 am, and I believe there must have been a mosque right around the corner from our hotel. (Heck, there's a mosque around every corner.) So the minaret's loudspeakers erupted into frighteningly loud chanting each morning, with the second call to prayer following up sometime around 6:20 am. It is surreal, especially at that quiet hour, to have this mesmerizing half-chanting, half-singing call wake you from a sound sleep--and then to hear the calls from other mosques around the area, all of the chants weaving together and harmonizing in the eerie, empty darkness.

The hotel bathroom was also not going to win any awards for cleanliness, but I figure I'm in training for the Indian ashram, right? I need to get comfortable with wherever it is that I find myself. I guess that deciding not to worry about the skeevy bathroom was a teeny, tiny, baby step in that direction. God. I am such a wimp. India is going to kick my ass.

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Doha is home to the stunning Museum of Islamic Art, housed in a building designed by I.M. Pei. The East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (also designed by Pei) is one of the most serenely beautiful buildings I have ever visited, so I was excited about seeing this one--and was not disappointed. The building is an elegant, modern vision of the geometric order and balance that graces so much of Islamic art. Like Pei's other work, this building seemed to be designed to show how light touches each different surface, creating a subtle palette of pale, sandy planes. The gallery displays, too, were stripped down to beautifully clean, simple glass boxes and dramatically lit objects seemingly suspended in thin air. We spent several hours gawking at the museum and its contents (mostly the former).

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Then, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous: our next stop was the Villagio Mall. Like the Museum of Islamic Art, the Villagio is newly built. Quite unlike Pei's museum, the Villagio was constructed to look like a Disney version of old Venice, complete with a sparkly blue canal traversing the length of the mall, and motorized "gondola" rides. Shopping malls are all the rage in the Middle East, with each new mall being bigger and more extravagant than the last. At the Villagio, I picked up a few things for the India trip, and we went to the Virgin Megastore, which sells English-language books as well as music.

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A less practical but more enjoyable place to shop was the Souq Waqif, newly built to look like a traditional old Middle Eastern souq. True, it's a huge tourist trap, but the buildings and layout are the genuine article: a labyrinth of shops and cafes stretches on and on. We ate at a great Italian restaurant there, having perhaps the first genuinely satisfying restaurant meal since we've been in the Middle East. Well, it was as satisfying as it could be without a glass of wine for accompaniment. 

Speaking of drinking--it always comes back to that, doesn't it? Is there a better way to make someone obsessively want something than to try and take it away from them? Anyway: it is possible to enjoy a libation or two in Qatar, but they don't make it easy. Some of the high-end international hotels have "clubs" that all men and non-Qatari women (yep, you read that right--Qatari women are not welcome) can join for a small fee. You pay your fee, around $12, they take a copy of your passport and enter all of your information into a database, issue you a plastic photo ID card, and then you are a "member" of the club. I'm thinking that there's a database somewhere that is now recording my beverage preferences, and I would appreciate it if the authorities would make this information available to the bartender at my "club." That would be useful.

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On the way back home, we made a stop at a place known as The Singing Dune. The story is, if you slide down the dune, it resonates with a sort of singing sound. Well, this was worth a detour! We had the GPS coordinates, and took off across first a narrow private road and then the desert itself, arriving at a suitably impressive sand dune that really did look like it would be fun to slide down, whether or not it would sing for us. We trooped up to the top of it, enjoyed the warm, windy view across the otherwise flat desert, and then--why not?--pitched ourselves down the dune. There was a brief moment when Michael was able to coax a small sort of squeaky resonance out of it, but otherwise, nothing. We renamed it The Farting Dune. 

Now I am safely back home in our cozy little expat compound, and I am bracing myself for a six-week solo expedition to strange, intense India. It'll be my first time there, and the longest time I have been away from my beloved partner in crime since our first year of marriage. It will be fine, I know, all squeamishness aside. It'll be more than fine: it will be incredible. I will be recording my experiences using spiral notebooks and Bic pens, so we'll catch up when I return to Saudi Arabia in late March.