Saturday, April 4, 2015
A pearlised white 4 wheel drive pulls over to the corner shop in front of me. With the engine still running, the driver sounds the horn once. Almost immediately a lean nut-brown man steps across the threshold of the shop and hastens over to the vehicle. After a few words, accompanied by several leisurely gestures of the hand, the driver withdraws his head into the interior of the vehicle where he adjusts the folds of his keffiyh. The shopkeeper has nodded his assent, swivelled and vanished into the gloom of his premises.
Barely a couple of minutes later he appears with a small bundle of provisions and is ready to hand it over when the driver gestures with his thumb for the purchases to be loaded into the boot. Task completed, the same hand emerges once more into the sunlight, proffering notes held between thumb and digit finger, which are accepted. Whatever the shopkeeper is saying in response for payment is interrupted by a single gesture from the hand, unmistakeably communicating that change is not required. The 4WD then slides away, leaving a momentary cloud of dust behind.
All over Doha this is a common scenario. Wealthy Qataris are served seated at the wheel of their titanic-size vehicles by Indian, Pakistani or Philippine traders. The drivers do not enter the premises and indeed the presence of these rather regal figures in the cramped aisles of a neighbourhood shop would be something of an anomaly. The brilliantly white starched thobe and the keffiyh, with its “crown” to hold it secure, is the attire of choice for the vast majority of Qatari men, and for women it is the burka. These traditional garments are worn not just on formal occasions, as I had supposed prior to my arrival in Doha, but daily. Thus dressed they convey something of the elegance and dignity for which Arabs are renowned the world over. Dress is also a statement of their place at the pinnacle of the highly stratified society which is contemporary Qatar.
Such is the level of immigration in Qatar that the number of immigrants exceeds the native-born population by around 3 – 1 in a society with approximately two million inhabitants. The country is developing rapidly and has had to import labour for almost every sector of the economy, particularly construction, retail, wholesale, transport, security and domestic service. Without these workers the country would grind to a halt. Yet reports and rumours abound of the exploitation, outrageously low wages* and Victorian living conditions endured by immigrants from the most poverty stricken countries. Qatar, it would seem, is not generous with its “guest workers”.
As a foreigner temporarily living in Doha, I belonged to the majority community in a society populated with foreigners. I didn’t “stand out” as newcomers to new cultures often do and neither did I have to struggle over the hurdles of a new language since English is the lingua franca in Qatar. English is spoken widely and apparently by almost everyone. However, Arabic is the first language and Islam is the dominant religion. There are over 1,200 mosques in the country, many of them recent constructions and very much state of the art. A single glance at the skyline of Doha indicates how highly architectural creativity is valued. Another of the architectural achievements in modern day Qatar is the Souk Waqif market in Doha. It was constructed ten years ago on the site of the original souk and built to resemble a traditional Arabic market place with cobblestoned streets and narrow alleyways. It is here that spices, perfumes, jewellery, rugs, shisha pipes, burkas and much more is sold.
On one of my first visits I sought out the falconry souk, located away from where the majority of animals and birds are sold. For centuries falconry has been an intrinsic part of life for Gulf Arabs and there are about a dozen premises which trade in these birds of prey. Hooded and tethered in the glare of fluorescent lighting, the falcons sit patiently on their perches in a sand pit. While one of the falcons dissects a piece of chicken for its supper the trader tells me that these birds were captured in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Kazakhstan, among other countries. They have not yet been trained; that is the task of the buyer, who will pay around £5,000 for a falcon. Later I see a father and son bearing one of the falcons on a gauntlet in the direction of the nearby Souk Waqif Falcon Hospital, to get it checked out, they say.
Dozens of women in burkas, some with the niqab covering their face, stroll through the alleyways and market stalls of the souk. Often a Philippine housemaid accompanying them is charged with the task of either carrying the youngest child in the family or holding a toddler’s hand. Further behind, an ancient Indian or Nepalese porter navigates a wheelbarrow loaded with the family’s purchases through the crowds.
What I don’t see amongst the throngs in the souk are African or Indian workers, the men who spend their days labouring on the hundreds of construction sites in Doha. I consciously began to look for them after noticing khaki clad police or security guards posted at the various entrances to the souk, preventing men with certain profiles from passing. A Nigerian construction site worker tells me he has never attempted to enter the souk. He goes on to say that when he or one of his workmates boards a bus in the city some passengers cover their mouth and nose. I find this hard to believe and wonder whether this is an isolated incident. On the one occasion when I travel by bus with him, a Philippine woman on the seat to my right covers the lower part of her face; she keeps it covered until she alights. As we pull away I look up through the window at one of the many billboards in Doha carrying the promotion slogan: Qatar: We are proud of you.
Many of the immigrants in Qatar come from other Arab nations and a significant number of them are refugees from Syria, Palestine and Libya. One evening a Syrian student mentions how popular camel racing is in Gulf Arab states. He tells me that mini robots with a riding crop are mounted on the camels and controlled by remote devices the owners operate. The robots were invented in Qatar in response to the number of casualties among children (mainly from India and Pakistan) who were trained as jockeys.
Three weeks later I arrive at a camel race track at the start of the exercise period. Very few people are around because of the dust storm which has been blowing for two days now. About thirty camels are led out; five carry jockeys and the remainder have robots mounted on them. The terrain is sand and at first the camels walk briskly but soon they are in a fast trot. At the sound of a car horn, the herd breaks into a gallop, which appears ungainly to my inexpert eyes. A number of 4 Wheel Drives keep pace with the camels and from the passenger seats the owners or trainers control the robots and their riding crops. The dusty hazy atmosphere adds to the dreamlike quality of the image.
Our travel memories are not always accompanied by narrative, images, a kaleidoscope of images suffices. Plastic shopping bags floating on the shoreline of the Arabian Gulf; burka-clad women sitting on deckchairs in the shallows of low tide; a billboard warning: “Do Not Slaughter Animals outside the Slaughterhouse”; white horses pacing a city centre corral at midnight; wooden dhow vessels moored alongside some of the most powerful speed boats in the world; a laughing dove hunched up against the dusty windowpane of my apartment in a sandstorm, the endless traffic jams blocking the roads of Doha; and gazing at the breathtaking glamour of the Doha skyline illuminated at midnight as my flight heads northward and homeward.
*A construction worker spoke of a monthly salary of £160.00 or around §235 USD.