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Qatar: My 12-hour layover in the world's most expensive art hub

Updated Jun 10, 2017 03:27pm

If you've read my previous travelogues, chances are you know that I love arts and culture. Enter Qatar, once labelled a dull Arab state and now a mighty force to reckon with in cultural initiatives.

The oil-rich state has become the world's largest buyer of contemporary arts, thanks in no small part to Sheikha Mayassa Al-Thani (the sister of the current ruling Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani), who has been declared the most powerful and influential person in the global art world. She is said to spend $1 billion annually on art works.

I had a 12-hour layover in Doha before heading to Saudi Arabia to visit family. I decided to visit the magnificent Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) during my brief transit but ended up seeing a lot more.

Qatar's capital Doha and traditional boats docked within the Doha Bay.
Qatar's capital Doha and traditional boats docked within the Doha Bay.

When the plane landed in Doha, I immediately felt like I was surrounded by luxury — a trademark of most, if not all, Arab countries.

Everything about the small, yet largely ambitious, Gulf state felt brand new and untouched. To put things into perspective for Pakistanis, Qatar is slightly smaller than the size of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

It seemed like all the infrastructure that greeted me had popped up overnight — from the newly designed contemporary, clean cut architecture at the Hamad International Airport to the soaring skyscrapers aligned on the outstretched highways that I observed during my taxi ride.

A giant yellow lamp bear greeted me at Qatar's Hamad International Airport.
A giant yellow lamp bear greeted me at Qatar's Hamad International Airport.

Not to mention the giant yellow lamp bear that sits atop a raised podium at the airport. The 23 ft (7m) high giant teddy bear was designed by world-renowned Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer. It was subsequently acquired by the Qatari Royal family for $6.8 million at a Christie’s auction.

In anticipation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup that Qatar will be hosting, the entire nation is basically one giant construction site. It is well in the throes of building a new city Lusail, and an iconic 80,000 seater football stadium where matches will be held.

Additionally, 12 international standard football stadiums (six of which are located within Doha), a state-of-the-art national rail system and a 160km+ citywide metro system are under construction.

Qatar is crazy about football. This is a replica trophy of the local football league.
Qatar is crazy about football. This is a replica trophy of the local football league.

A football stadium under construction in Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
A football stadium under construction in Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Cruising through Doha — where a majority of Qatar’s 2.5 million residents live — I found it incredulous how the city had changed so much from my previous transit about three years ago.

From a run-down shabby airport to an extravagant terminal replete with gold-plated coffee kiosks, and from a non-existent skyline to a towering Manhattan-esque one, Qatar's growth has been phenomenal.

Every second or third person in Qatar is a migrant worker, and South Asians account for 88 per cent of the population. Other than the immigration officer who stamped my entry into the country, the only other place in Qatar where I happened to come across locals was at the Souq Waqif — the main city souq-cum-marketplace — located in the district of Al Souq.

Locals having a chitchat at the Souq Waqif.
Locals having a chitchat at the Souq Waqif.

A local man reading the newspaper at a café in Souq Waqif.
A local man reading the newspaper at a café in Souq Waqif.

Like most Gulf Monarchies, portraits of the local Royal family can be seen in most parts of the country.
Like most Gulf Monarchies, portraits of the local Royal family can be seen in most parts of the country.

Unlike most souqs in the region, it has retained some of its yesteryear Arabian charm. I wouldn't call it authentic because a large part of it has been gentrified with the opening up of mainstream cafes and fast food outlets but compared to the rest of the country, it does have a rather raw feel to it.

My favorite spot in the district is the adjoining Falcon Souq. Inside this souq, birds are sold for thousands of dollars. But shopkeepers allow visitors to pose with the falcons and even hold them. I couldn't afford a falcon so I contended myself with just admiring them.

Given that falcon hunting is a popular sport in most Arab countries, I wasn't surprised to discover that the area also has a Falcon Hospital!

Later, we drove further into the city to the waterfront promenade of Doha Corniche, which is home to many stunning landmarks and public art displays: the dhow harbour, the pearl monument and the Orry the Oryx Statue.

A traditional calligraphy public art display on the Corniche.
A traditional calligraphy public art display on the Corniche.

Orry the Oryx — the official mascot of the 2006 Asian games. It is now a permanent fixture on the Doha Corniche.
Orry the Oryx — the official mascot of the 2006 Asian games. It is now a permanent fixture on the Doha Corniche.

The pearl monument on Doha Corniche.
The pearl monument on Doha Corniche.

Since I had arrived around sunset, I also got to witness the golden rays of the sun illuminate the West Bay, which was a magical sight to behold, juxtaposed with Doha's skyline in the background. I also indulged in some good ol' people watching.

The iconic Museum of Islamic Art.
The iconic Museum of Islamic Art.

The interior of the museum is as spectacular as its exterior. This here is an oculus at the top of the atrium; it captures and reflects patterned light due to its faceted dome.
The interior of the museum is as spectacular as its exterior. This here is an oculus at the top of the atrium; it captures and reflects patterned light due to its faceted dome.

Built on reclaimed land, the area around the MIA offers some of the most glorious views of the Doha skyline.
Built on reclaimed land, the area around the MIA offers some of the most glorious views of the Doha skyline.

Adjacent to the museum is the MIA Park, a public space where locals frequently come to relax. Right at the edge of the park is the towering “7 sculpture”. Standing at a height of over 80 feet, the sculpture comprises 7 steel plates placed against one another. The sculpture is meant to celebrate the spiritual and scientific significance of the number 7 in Islamic culture.
Adjacent to the museum is the MIA Park, a public space where locals frequently come to relax. Right at the edge of the park is the towering “7 sculpture”. Standing at a height of over 80 feet, the sculpture comprises 7 steel plates placed against one another. The sculpture is meant to celebrate the spiritual and scientific significance of the number 7 in Islamic culture.

Then, I proceeded to the much-anticipated, and most famous of all landmarks, the Museum of Islamic Arts aka (MIA). Built in 2008 on reclaimed land within Doha Bay, the cubistic building is designed by the award-winning Chinese architect I.M Pei and rises out of the turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Gulf like an iceberg.

Apparently the museum building is meant to look like a woman in a niqaab; the two windows on the top dome are meant to be her eyes peeking out from behind a veil.

I had hardly bargained on seeing such a world-class museum in Qatar. I was pleasantly surprised that entry to the museum was free.

It contains some of the largest collections of Islamic art from three continents, spanning over almost 1,400 years, containing exhibits from as far as Central Asia, Morocco and Spain.

It also offers a free shuttle service to the nearby Mathaf: Arab Museum of Contemporary Art, and to the Qatar National Museum that will reopen up later this year after renovation.

A modern-day depiction of Mahatma Gandhi’s “3 monkeys” (see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil) by Indian artist Subodh Gupta at the Katara Cultural village.
A modern-day depiction of Mahatma Gandhi’s “3 monkeys” (see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil) by Indian artist Subodh Gupta at the Katara Cultural village.

A traditional pigeon tower at Katara Cultural Village.
A traditional pigeon tower at Katara Cultural Village.

After having my fill of the museum, I decided to end my short Qatari odyssey at the Katara cultural village, a public space that is home to a photography museum, an amphitheater, some traditional buildings and multiple public art displays by famous artists from around the world.

I couldn’t help but think that if a country like Qatar, where its own citizens are a minority, could forge a strong cultural identity on the world stage, and undergo a cultural renaissance, then why can’t Pakistan?

Pakistan is home to a plethora of rich culture and traditions; there should be museums dedicated to all of them, showcasing the diversity of our communities. Investing in the arts can go a long way in the development of the nation's social fabric.


—Photos by author