Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the tag “Doha”

Souq Waqif

“Shopping with these merchants is not merely the going through of certain forms for the acquisition of necessary commodities- it is an art… an amusement…a study in character and national characteristics.”
Gertrude Bell, 1894

My favorite place in Doha, in addition to the Museum of Islamic Art, is Souq Waqif, which literally means “market standing.” It is located along a dry riverbed, the musheireb, near the corniche along the Arabian Gulf. In olden times, this was the center of town, and the vendors would stand by their temporary market stalls, ready to move them as the river rose and its waters encroached.

Journal Entry, March 2010: “It is dusk in the souq. The long afternoon siesta is over. As I park my car between two mosques, the solemn chant of the Call to Prayer rings out, ricocheting between the speakers.  Muslims, mostly men, file into the mosque, leaving their dusty sandals in a neat row beside the entrance. Women have set up tables to sell their wares. Jewelry, fabrics, snacks. Some have bowls of eggs they will fry on iron skillets. I search for one particular store, which sells handsome, rugged old furniture. No one can give me directions, even the policeman standing on a crate in the middle of a small traffic circle. I take this as an invitation to simply wander around some more. Who knows what else I might discover? As the sky darkens, colorful lights come on, and the market comes to life. This is when the real action happens. I sit down at the Lebanese café on the main pedestrian boulevard to sip delicious mint lemonade, people gaze and jot down notes in my journal. This is a popular gathering spot for locals and expats alike. Next to me,  men and women are smoking shisha.”

The souq , a maze of narrow alleyways, twisting among simple mud dwellings,  captures the flavor of the Arab world. Fragrances of incense, perfumed oils, and spices. Ginger from China, teas from Ceylon, cinnamon from India, medicinal herbs from Iran, cardamom, saffron and Oudh (sandalwood.)  Wooden carts display dyes, kohl, hookah (“hubbly bubbly”) pipes, mubkhari (mud incense burners), pumice stones,  brass dalla (coffee pots) and even small pets in cages. Closet-size shops brim with wares: pashminas, cookware, tools, Aladdin Lamps, tin lanterns, daggers and stacks of Bedouin cushions and camel blankets woven in bright primary colors.In the distance, stately minarets and chedis of mosques, topped with the crescent moon symbol, form striking silhouettes.

Muslim Qatari families meander about. Lively brown-eyed children climb over and under benches and tables and bolts of cloth.  Women are gliding- not walking- in their graceful, flowing abayas.  Young Muslim couples stroll along beside each other, their private emotions well concealed by their attire and demeanor. There is something enchanting about how some of the women, their faces entirely covered by a simple black scarf, whisper to their companions.

I purchase a few items. Several pashminas. Bronze camel candleholders. A book of essays written by young Qatari women. It still feels strange to me to bargain down the prices, especially since they are so low by American standards. It is expected, however, so I am refining my approach with the right phrases: “Oh, no, that is much more than I want to spend.” Or “But I saw this at another shop for much less.” Or- and this line works the best-“I do not have that much money with me.” Thus the bantering continues and a mutual price is agreed on. A friendly young man urges me to purchase some of his Omani silver jewelry and silver crown-type headdresses by putting them on me. I appease him by buying a couple pieces. They will always remind me of this day, this place.

An unfamiliar sight: old men sitting or lying in wheelbarrows, which they use to ferry about shoppers’ purchases. Human camels on wheels. They seem remarkably cheerful.

A familiar sight: a young adolescent boy, around twelve, still soft, smooth and pudgy in the cheeks, proudly wearing a thobe and ghutra, but awkward and self-conscious, flipping his head-scarf this way and that to get the right effect, tripping a bit over his gown.  A rite of passage. A man-child trying out his new identity. Like a young American boy wearing his first tie.

Journal Entry, April 2010:  “I have come to the souq to pick up some silver necklaces for my daughters and nieces. The designer, a Qatari man, has fashioned their names in Arabic on them. The mid-day Call to Prayer begins. Shopkeepers shut their doors to rest. Some head to the mosque or kneel on their prayer rugs. As I leave, I notice a South Asian man, probably a Pakistani, sweeping the street in the glare of the sun. I wonder when he gets to rest….”           Next Post: Our Global Family:Glimpses

An Exalted Space

“If one could find the heart of Islamic architecture, might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design, where sunlight brings forms to life?”

I.M. Pei, Architect
 
Museum of Islamic Art, Philip Jodidio

 

Journal Entry: March 4, 2011: “The magnificent Museum of Islamic Art on the corniche of Doha, overlooking the Arabian Gulf, inspires in me an appreciation of simplicity, clarity, and elegance. There is a lean, taut, pristine beauty to the building, both inside and out, balanced by a tranquility- a spaciousness- infused by a sense of wonder, a spirit of grace. When I approach this museum and enter it, I am overcome by reverence. My heart is still. My mind is at ease yet fully engaged, alert, awake. It is like entering a hushed holy space, a  prism, a shaft of iridescence- suspended in time. In every direction there are splendid, surprising lines and angles. The multiple intertwined triangles and interlaced circles in the central staircase, floating walkways, window panes, and light fixtures create a dazzling constellation of shapes, many of which are actually reflections and shadows, rather than something you can touch, creating an ambiance of mystery and magic.  The cityscape across the harbor beyond the arched windows seems incorporated into the scene, part of the artwork – as do the terrace fountains and the dhows off the pier. The neutral tones enhance the linear elements, the bold structural compositions. The play of natural light creates constantly shifting patterns, which underscores the ephemeral intricacy of the overall effect.  The designs are different, depending on the time of day. The Museum of Islamic Art beckons me to stop, observe, digest, and look again. As I turn around to take it all in, I am twirling inside a kaleidoscope. How appropriate that the course in illustrated journaling I am taking here is called Sacred Pages. The word to describe how I feel in this place is exhilarated…”

I.M. Pei, Chinese architect born in Canton in 1917, took several years to decide upon a signature design statement for this museum, which he assumed would be his last great contribution to world architecture. He finally decided upon the mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo, built from 876-879, inspired by its “austerity and simplicity,” its distinctive angular façade.

Enjoy the gallery of photographs below. You can click on any single photo to enlarge it.

“It is the light of the desert that transforms the architecture into a play of light and shadow.”
I.M. Pei

Next Post: Five Star Stables

Round and Round She Goes

“…And Where She Stops,
 Nobody Knows!”

Isn’t that the little rhyme that goes with Pin The Tail On The Donkey, played at children’s birthday parties? When players take turns being blindfolded and spun around, then released, in a dizzy whirl, to find the donkey? This is a perfect metaphor for getting places in Dubai and Doha. It does feel like a game.

When I arrived in Dubai, my husband told me not to be concerned when I get in a taxi and the driver heads off in the exact opposite direction of where I am headed. That is just the way it works here. The roads loop around in all directions and on top of themselves, often into detours at building sites, eventually ending at the proper destination. There may be some deeply engrained Arab rationale for this, but I have not figured out what it is. You go north to go south, east to go west. It is all one big circle anyway. (I will resist the temptation to play with this as a literary allusion or a religious theme.) No- when it comes to snarled traffic, vague directions, roads to nowhere, and drivers who speak no English, it is hard to wax poetic. A sense of humor is, however, imperative. As is trust in your fellow human beings. “The kindness of strangers…”

In Qatar, I actually got my own driver’s license and joined the throng of cars. Here is the traffic picture in Doha. Main thoroughfares called C Ring and D Ring – except they are straight, not circles. Roads named after members of the royal family, becoming extensions of each other, that disappear into nowhere (i.e. the desert). Slip roads, marginal lanes, underpasses, overpasses. And- most important- the ROUNDABOUTS, that have colloquial names not marked anywhere on them or on most maps, so references to them as landmarks are not helpful at all for at least the first few weeks of driving yourself places.  Then there are drivers who zing from the inner to the outer of the three to four lanes inside roundabouts to exit, with no warning, seeming unconcerned about cutting you off. 360-degree vision is essential. And nerves of steel. I possess neither.

Here are some directions to friends’ homes, with addresses like  Palm Beach Residences, Falcon Street and Al Jazi Gardens, Al Dafna, Gate 6, Villa 32, as they were told me verbatim, written in my journal.

“From West Bay go as if you were to go to the Ritz. At the Intercon Roundabout go straight ahead. (When you are approaching a circle, which way is straight?) At the next roundabout go left. Go straight again through the next roundabout and then right at the next, the West Entrance of the West Bay Lagoon. Go into the Lagoon and go straight ahead at the roundabout over the bridge….”(It took me a while to find that one.)

“When driving from Rainbow Roundabout to Qatar Sports Roundabout, take the 2nd right turn. At the end of this road, turn left and the compound is along the road a bit on your right.” (Better.)

“Start at Rainbow Roundabout (which way?) Go straight across Intercon Roundabout and turn left. Do not carry on over the bridge. At the next roundabout, go all the way around and come back going the opposite direction. There will be a mosque and and two embassies on your right. Look for a walled villa with umbrellas in the courtyard.” (Found it on the third try.)

“We are in Villa 19, Al Fardan Gardens, near the airport slip road, opposite the Lulu on D Ring.”

Here is one final journal entry, from March 2010: “Yesterday I got lost. I needed to get lost. It increased my confidence. I followed a friend’s directions to the new Lulu Hypermarket beyond Landmark Mall, where I was told they have the best selection of fresh fruits and vegetables in the city. Once I got going, I realized, too late, that he had been approaching it from another part of town. Thus, I got all turned around. I missed the necessary slip road and went many miles out of the way. At one point I was pretty far out in the desert, but I could not do a U-Turn due to a construction barrier. Since I am rarely in a hurry here- no appointments to make, no particular schedule- it was all right. I figured as long as I could see the tall towers of the West Bay peninsula, where we live, in the remote distance, I would be able to work my way back there.”

Mission accomplished. The fresh produce was delicious!
Next Post: An Exalted Space

The Majlis Gallery

There is a vibrant art scene in both Dubai and Doha, which I will explore further in future posts. My favorite gallery in Dubai is The Majlis Gallery, the oldest one in the city. It is in a classic windtower courtyard home built in 1940.“Majlis” means gathering place in Arabic.  Every home in this part of the world contains a majlis for men and a separate one for women. They serve as the heart of their families and their culture. This gallery is owned by Alison and Dick Collins, a British couple who moved here in the mid 1970’s, whom I had the immense pleasure to meet.  Alison arrived with a background in art, an indomitable spirit and a keen interest in foreign cultures. Dick, a veterinarian, and equally adventurous, soon became the personal physician to Sheikh Mohammed’s famous, magnificent Arabian stallions. Dick and Alison moved into this house soon after they arrived, and they raised a family here. They converted it to a gallery in 1989, and it has thrived ever since. Visit its website: www.themajlisgallery.com. The exhibits and classes they offer are exceptional, and the space is simply exquisite. Treat yourself to a virtual browse in this slide show below- about 60 seconds. Next Post: Who Do I Say I Am?

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Welcome to Expat Eyes!

 Leave the familiar for a while.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.
All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of
You. 

From “All The Hemispheres” by Hafiz, Sufi Poet- c. 1315-1390

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On October 13, on an Emirates Airline flight from Doha, Qatar, to Dubai, UAE, I read the following statement in The Khaleej Times, one of Dubai’s local English language newspapers. It was in an article about an international literature festival: “Iceland is a nation which has always focused on story telling. We think something has not happened as long as it hasn’t been written down on paper.” That describes the way I have felt for many years. Most of my life, in fact.  Compelled to record and chronicle.  I have kept journals- or notebooks, as I now think of them-for as long as I can remember. Just for my own pleasure and to make sense of my life. The writer Joan Didion has commented that she writes in order to understand what she thinks. I like that! Her explanation resonates with me. Then, on that same flight, I read a remark made by Flannery O’Connor: “You may write for the joy of it, but the act of writing is not complete in itself. It has to end in its audience.”  True. And this was the final nudge I needed to  begin writing a blog.

For the past few years, in Dubai and in Qatar, and now in China and Mongolia, I have been filling notebooks with observations and musings. Living abroad is like attending a fast-paced graduate school in a variety of subjects simultaneously. The experience is stimulating, unnerving and enriching.  My notebooks have served as my center, my compass, the place where I go to unwind and digest. In all this traveling, making new nests in new worlds, becoming a part of foreign communities, however fleeting, I have struggled to figure out my role in all of it. Who am I, other than a privileged tourist, a “trailing spouse”? How can I be productive and contribute something worthwhile? Recently, I realized that the answer is actually quite simple. My role is to tell my story and to be an ambassador of sorts, sharing what intrigues and inspires me, from daily interactions to the broader cultural context.

I chose sections of a poem by the Sufi mystic poet Hafiz and a slide show of a whirling dervish performing in the desert outside Dubai to launch this blog. They beckon us to let go, to lose balance, to stretch our identities and our world views. A spirit of play  and adventure permeates both art forms. The poet and the dancer are inviting us to enlarge our circles. I hope you will join me!

Next Post: Traveling Inside Out

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