En route to the Caucasus, I stopped over in Doha, the capital and only major city in the State of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula. This being my first time in the Middle East, I took the opportunity to see a bit of the city before my next flight.
Once I had cleared customs at Doha’s brand new airport, I took a taxi into the city via a pristine modern highway. Enlivening the flat, desert route are hundreds of glowing multicolored pillars, each nearly 100 feet high, bearing the Arabic text of the Qatari national anthem scrawled in sillouhetted calligraphy from top to bottom.
The taxi dropped me off at Souq Waqif, where I immediately walked into a wall of humidity and stumbled around for a few minutes while I tried to defog my glasses. Qatar is a desert nation. Even at night, the temperature did not drop below 90°F. Meanwhile, the country’s location in the middle of the Persian (ahem, Arabian) Gulf, makes for a steamy climate. So I welcomed the plentiful air conditioning – every place I went, from the enclosed walkways in the airport parking garage, to the outdoor seating at restaurants, to small market stalls in the souq, offered an air-conditioned respite from the suffocating evening air.
The souq, or سوق, is an open-air marketplace where people traditionally come to buy a whole array of products. Doha, a city rich with oil profits, has no doubt embraced modern commercial venues, but the renovated Souq Waqif remains the heart of the city. I took a walk through the maze of stalls to have a look at the variety of sweets, spices, jewelry, pets, and artwork for sale. Along one of the main alleyways, I found a restaurant to try the local fare. I don’t speak Arabic and couldn’t tell you what it was I ate, but at least it was good – and the lemon-mint smoothie was a welcome refreshment from the heat!
Fed, but with the entire night left before my flight to Baku, I took a walk along the Doha waterfront, where harbor sightseeing boats bobbed in front of a colorful Manhattan-style skyline. A giant fountain in the shape of an oyster sits at one end of the pedestrian area, with an open shell revealing a perfectly round pearl in the center. Before the advent of the artificial pearl industry (and more importantly, the oil industry), Qatar was a leading supplier of natural pearls. Pearl divers would make a living by free-diving to the bottom of the sea along the Qatari coast and gathering oysters in the hope of finding one that contained a pearl. Nowadays, pearl diving is an obsolete profession in Qatar, but its legacy is preserved through annual festivals as well as a luxury artificial island complex that is under construction and named, of course, The Pearl.
Eventually the jet-lag started to catch up with me, and I made my way back to the airport to find a comfortable seat to pass the night. The next leg of my flight would take me across the Gulf and over Iran to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I had a window seat, and took the opportunity to sightsee in Iran from 30,000 feet. Current events aside, Iran is stunning from the air – for nearly two hours of flying, row after row of mountain peaks rise up from the haze, separated by thin strips of agriculture and occasionally vast cities sprawling out to the horizon. I met several Iranians over the coming weeks who assured me that it’s even more beautiful and interesting from the ground, so you can be sure it’s on my list of places to visit…pending friendlier politics…