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Trip 19 -- Middle East

Part 1: Sweltering in Qatar (it's not "catarrh")
26 August 2017

"All my life I've dreamed to travel never anywhere specific but somewhere. Anywhere. To be happier. To find something. Who I am."

Such are the protagonist's closing thoughts in "Le voyageur," a film about a Lebanese travel agent who succumbs to the temptations of Paris on his first trip abroad. I watched it during the 12 hours from New York to Doha, just before we descended through the haze above Qatar's desert ridges, flat sand, and oil machinery.

"Never anywhere specific but somewhere." I hadn't planned to visit Qatar, which is stressed on the first syllable -- something like "KAH-tr." For months, all I had booked was a flight from Abu Dhabi to New York in Etihad Airways' first-class "apartment," which I'd put on hold impulsively when the airline opened up a bunch of award space. I didn't know how I would get to Abu Dhabi, but I was due for a visit to nearby Dubai. For one thing, I was out of Chocodates, my favorite snack: dates stuffed with almonds and covered in chocolate. The only place I'd ever seen them was in the United Arab Emirates.

I have a friend in Dubai who lives part-time in Beirut, and she'd assured me that Lebanon was safe, beautiful, fun, and full of good things to eat. I'd long been curious and was glad to have someone to show me around.

To put the rest of the trip together, I looked at Qatar Airways, whose summer promotion provided a free hotel room and transit visa with a stopover in Doha. Just before I traveled, Qatar did away with the visa requirements altogether, and for $50 I upgraded to the luxury package, giving me two nights in a Doha five-star hotel on the way to Beirut. From Beirut to Dubai I'd fly Royal Jordanian and spend a day in Amman on the way. I suddenly had a 12-day trip planned, which would take me to four countries, three of which were new to me.

The airport bus in Doha dropped me along the corniche, the road running along the bay. I exited and was instantly covered in sweat from the 100-degree heat. Every time I went outside the heat surprised me with a slap in the face. I was lucky; a month ago it was around 110. On one side were the gleaming buildings of Doha's financial center, around the bay a few miles away. On the other were two contrasting parts of the morning commute: the zipping traffic on the corniche road and, beyond that, a parade of men on camels.

Doha is only about 200 years old (and Qatar has existed only since 1971), but there has been a city there for 350. The city's name probably derives from the Arabic for either "bay" or "big tree," but there's scant shade in the blistering summer. I picked my way into Souq Waqif, the district of squares and alleyways that make up the refurbished market area. I was booked into Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels, but there were nine of them; which one was I headed to?

I entered one of the fancier-looking ones, Al Mirqab, and was relieved when the receptionist said, "You have come to the right place." However, my room wouldn't be ready until the afternoon. I left my bag and headed into the souq to be tantalized by spices and perfumes and intrigued by the bird market. Should I return home with a dove, parrot, or falcon? Indeed, it's not unusual to see a pampered falcon in a first-class seat on a Middle East airline.

I found the shop of "the old pearl diver," one of the few reminders of Qatar's once-bustling pearling industry. The market for local pearls died down in the early 1900s, when pearls from further afield, such as Japan, started to dominate the industry. Qatar's economy was slow from then until the 1950s, when it began to cash in on its oil. The pearl diver's shopkeeper told me that the same oyster can produce pearls of different colors and that the most expensive pearls are the roundest and shiniest. I liked the ones with little knobs that gave them sort of a snail shape. I was surprised at the varieties of size; some pearls looked like grains of couscous and others like ears of corn. Nearly all of the pearls at the shop were from Japan or other freshwater areas; local pearls were extremely rare. A 100-riyal (about $27) string of imported freshwater pearls might cost 50,000 riyals for similar ones sourced locally, the shopkeeper said.

I had a Yemeni lunch of ogda -- beef stew with carrots, potatoes, and squash -- accompanied by a spicy tomato salsa and a tennis-racket-sized warm flatbread, and then I headed past a statue of a giant oyster and pearl to the Museum of Islamic Art, a soaring space designed by I.M. Pei.

I'd been under the impression that animal forms were forbidden in Islam, but that applies only to religious art. And so I enjoyed a 12th-century Iranian bronze incense burner, a ceramic cat ewer, and an 18th-century Indian powder flask with a fish head at one end and a beak at the other. And I gazed at all the samples of Arabic calligraphy in different writing scripts. It's certainly one of the most graceful languages to look at, with its stark lines, dramatic curves, and diamond dots. Islam believes that it is an act of piety to represent God's word in beauty, and sometimes artists got so caught up in decorating their words as to obscure the meaning -- imagine a typeface so riddled with serifs and whimsical strokes that you can barely make out the letters.

Perhaps it's a good thing I don't read Arabic, or I could have gazed for hours at some of the more muddled examples, trying to decipher them. Indeed, that's what I did with the geometric designs, in which series of lines and angles form ten-pointed stars and near-chevrons. I'd look at the shapes formed by the lines, and then I'd try to follow the lines themselves, tracing routes along them like a traveler inspired by the near-infinite possibilities on a road map.

After sunset the temperature plummeted to 92 degrees, barely tolerable for walking around, and finally there were people in the streets. I dined above the falcon market on kemah (minced veal with peas in tomato sauce) and khabeesa (a dry mixture of semolina, rose water, saffron, and pistachios) accompanied by a lovely lavender soda, and then I settled in at a cafe with a lemon-mint shisha and some fresh pomegranate juice. The breeze and the cafe's misting devices provided just enough coolness and vapor to combat the heat. It was still too hot for my computer, however; I thought it might be a lovely place to write this trip report but the humidity interfered with the touch screen. It was probably just as well, as the shisha was strong and all I could do was gaze happily up at the sky -- all haze, no stars -- and try to make out the conversation in Russian happening behind me.

Looking at the bus map I made ambitious plans for my second day in Doha. I could take the 777 bus up to the Pearl, the collection of manmade islands similar to Dubai's Palm or World archipelagos. Then I could stop by Katara Cultural Village on the way to the Intercontinental hotel, where I'd stuff my face at brunch at the Coral restaurant.

To get to the 777 bus I took the pedestrian tunnel from the souq to the corniche. It was mercifully air-conditioned, much like nearly all indoor spaces in Doha. A Qatari and I exchanged words about the heat; he had come to the area to buy a mousetrap. He found me at the bus stop about 15 minutes later and offered me a ride in his red pickup truck.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

I didn't really have an answer, as I had three hours until brunch and was just planning to take the bus and get off when I saw something interesting. I could do things in any order.

"Maybe Katara," I said. Katara Cultural Village is a collection of restaurants, museums, and galleries a few miles up the coast.

"You should go to the city center," he said. "Nothing will be open at Katara until the afternoon." Friday mornings are sacred in Muslim countries. I was surprised he had chosen that time to procure a mousetrap.

"OK," I said. At least I would see something, and I would find out why the city center was called that, when it was miles from the souq area, which seemed to be the true heart of Doha.

He dropped me off at the City Center mall, where I explored the giant Carrefour supermarket. I found that Qatar, or at least this supermarket, has its own version of Chocodates. But I didn't much feel like being in a mall, and while the city center had plenty of hotels, stores, and government buildings, it wasn't a particularly interesting area to walk around in the heat. So I got on a bus and headed north.

The area was dense with construction of a new highway and Doha's metro system. The bus went up to the Pearl, an isolated place with perfectly manicured roundabouts, residental towers, and shopping centers. Much of it was still being built. There wasn't much there for a tourist, but it was kind of interesting to see. The bus's terminus was the Lagoona Mall, where I stayed on for the return trip.

The 777 route was only recently extended from the city center to the Pearl. I figured that was a perfect opportunity to bring bus service to the Intercontinental and nearby hotels and then to Katara Cultural Village. But while the 777 passes by these places of interest, it's on an expressway, and ten minutes after I saw Katara flash by I was back at the City Center mall. There was no way to reach the Intercontinental or Katara by public bus.

I could have taken a taxi to the Intercontinental -- there were plenty of touts at the mall trying to foist one on me -- but it was only about a 40-minute walk away, and I figured I'd work up an appetite for the brunch buffet. What I didn't know is that it would be 40 minutes of walking along a highway and through construction zones. I arrived at the Intercontinental sweating and dripping with dirt, and two restrooms later (the automatic faucets in the first were apparently programmed not to respond to desperate hands) I was finally clean, and I presented myself at Coral's check-in desk at precisely my reserved time of 12:30.

For two hours I pigged out (as much as one can in a country that forbids pork) on shrimp, raw French oysters, mussels, sashimi, lamb chops, Arabic dips, fruit juices, and short ribs so tough they might have been mistaken for the nearby construction materials. But most of the food was enjoyable, and I waddled out of the restaurant a happy person.

I'd hoped that after my $80 brunch the Intercontinental might throw me a towel so I could lie at their pool or the beach for a while, but they wanted $70 more for that, so I headed back to the entrance to see how to move on. I wasn't about to walk again, and I didn't feel like waiting a year or two for the rail service to open. A member of the hotel staff kindly pointed out the free shuttle the hotel offers its guests, and she said it would be all right if I took it.

It wasn't due to depart for an hour, which gave me just enough time to walk up to Katara Cultural Village. The area was pretty quiet. I walked through a blazing-hot outdoor amphitheatre and found myself in front of an exhibition called "Skate Girls of Kabul." It was a collection of photographs by the British portraitist Jessica Fulford-Dobson, who had heard about girls skateboarding in Kabul and been inspired to go tell their story. In a country with low literacy for girls, the development of a skateboarding program is one small step toward freedom, empowerment, and confidence.

The hotel shuttle dropped me off back at the City Center mall, where I decided to take two buses back to the souq via a roundabout way, enabling me to see a bit more of Doha from air-conditioned comfort. I vastly underestimated the scope of the city and the monotony of Doha's buildings outside the center, which apart from the elegantly understated mosques were row upon row of two- and three-story homes and strip malls. We passed dozens of boys playing ball, and I thought of the skate girls and wondered if they could use such a program in Doha. An hour and a half later, I disembarked at a desolate, dusty place called Industrial Area Street 1, and an hour after that I left the second bus at Doha's main bus station, just a few minutes' walk from my hotel.

Qatar has recently fallen out of favor with some of its Arab neighbors who contend that the country supports extremist groups and shelters terrorists. The conflict is political and peaceful, and there is no safety risk, but it means that Qatar Airways cannot fly to certain destinations or over their air space. They can still fly to Beirut, but they have to detour around Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Doha-Beirut flight is about an hour longer on Qatar than on the Lebanese carrier. Qatar provides excellent service, however, and I arrived in Beirut without incident. It's cooler -- but not by much.

Go on to part 2: Booking it to Byblos and down to Tyre (it's not "tire")