Qatar. The only country in the world that starts with “Q.” Aerial photos of a soccer stadium with an, er, distinctive design slated to be built for when the hot, arid country hosts the 2022 World Cup—an audacious feat made possible by the nation’s burgeoning oil reserves. Camels. Desert.
That was the extent of my knowledge of the Middle Eastern country when I was researching flights from Washington D.C. to Bali. “Doha? Where the heck is Doha?” That’s the capital of Qatar as it turns out, and a convenient stopover on a trip to Indonesia via Qatar Airways. Suddenly a trip to one new country becomes two ticks on my country life list.
What was I supposed to do, connect through Los Angeles?
Within hours, my itinerary was booked. I now had a decent window of time in Doha, though not during daylight hours (5PM to 2AM). I was actually more excited about my nine hours in Qatar — my first trip to the Middle East — than my week in Bali. Some modest internet research identified a couple potential places of interest: The Museum of Islamic Art and the Souq Waqif, which includes stores dedicated to falconry. I’ve heard of many travelers taking advantage of the impressive amenities at the Doha Airport – nap rooms, swimming pool, art exhibits – but these sights were too tempting to pass up.
I avoided planning because as long as I am in an unfamiliar land with a camera, I’m happy. And Doha did not disappoint.
After landing at DOH and confirming that my baggage would be checked through my connecting flight, I grabbed my camera bag carry-on and made quick work to find an ATM and the cab line. After a 15 minute cab ride, I was at the Museum of Islamic Art a couple hours before it closed at 8pm. Even if not for the art — which was incredible — the visit was worth it for the view alone.
After the museum closed, I walked along the water towards the souq. The shoreline was thumping with neon-laden party boats offering revelers a chance to cruise and dance along the Gulf. No alcohol, though (it’s a dry country). The spastic bursts of colors and cacophonous din from weathered speakers offered an unexpected juxtaposition against the iconic art museum in the background, floating over the inky waters of the Gulf.
Most of the souq was closing but the bird and pet market was vibrant, packed with colorful birds and fish from around the world. I was surprised to only find common pets like goldfish, budgerigars and lovebirds—Superb Parrots from Australia were a highlight.
Deeper into the labyrinth I found a few storefronts selling small, inverted leather cups with feathered tassels. I had found the Falcon Souq, a series of small shops dedicated a hobby that is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Glass cases full of hoods, jesses and gloves surround the large, sandy pits where live falcons of differing sizes and shades calmly sit on AstroTurf-wrapped perches, from the diminutive kestrel to the bulky gyrfalcon. The walls were topped with images and taxidermied models of bustards, a family of ostrich-looking birds that are a popular quarry for falcon hunts. (The Kori Bustard is the heaviest flying bird in the world).
Down the street, an outdoor outfitter had a poster on its door that reinforced the importance of this hobby: “Come and experience the Arabian life of safari camping in Qatar” it read with three items pictured: a falcon, a camel and a white Toyota Landcruiser.
I sat down at a nice Persian restaurant for dinner and immediately felt the white table cloths and view of the exterior of the souq, while appreciated, was too removed from the vibrant core of the market. I left quietly and made a few wrong turns before refinding the simple stand I’d walked by earlier in the evening. It was encased with glass, full of young men hunched over grills, a window and a line of hungry customers. Ten minutes later, I had two large pieces of flatbread — one stuffed with egg and the other with some sort of minced meat — and I was sitting on the edge of a walkway lit dimly by orange street lights, listening to the spoken Arabic of passerby.
On the perimeter of the souq, I found a pen of camels loafing under the midnight sky. There’s likely no scene more quintessentially Middle Eastern than camels resting languorously against a backdrop of a city mixed with ancient white stucco walls, gleaming skyscrapers, well-maintained asphalt arterials bustling with luxury cars and men in flowing, white robes—or “thawb.”
With a few hours left to spare on my layover, I found a second-floor cafe to enjoy a sweet cake and a strong espresso while watching people navigate the clogged corridor below.
I paid my bill (no tip) and walked out to the perimeter of the souq to easily hail a cab back to the airport.
In another couple hours, I was in the seat of my 2AM connecting flight to Bali, ruminating over my first experiences in the Middle East.
Here are some quick memories:
- There are many nice cars in Doha, including a higher than expected percentage of German and Japanese SUVs and trucks. It was here where I, a man reasonably informed about cars, learned that Bentley had released an SUV. Most of the cars, no matter the value, have a sandstone-colored layer of dust accumulated on their lower halves.
- The souq is vivacious up until midnight with mostly Qatari. The chatter of open-air conversations bounce off the narrow corridors and the air is thick with the sweet stench of shisha, smelling like half tobacco and half watermelon-flavored cotton candy. No alcohol is served but the tobacco waterpipes are omnipresent.
- The bird market was 80% budgerigars with the rest comprised of lovebirds and cockatiels. I did see some crimson rosellas, superb parrots, button quail and one store devoted to parrots, mynas and bulbuls. There were a few red-rumped parakeets and a lot of Hermann’s Tortoises.
- The falcon souq was very quiet save for an infrequent TV blaring in the corner of the room, opposite the omnipresent wall of couches. It appears to be a rough life for a bustard in Qatar: the preferred quarry of falconers.
- The Qatari population seems to be a comfortable mix of different faiths and levels of piety, based on the varied wardrobes.
- Telephone poles along the highway from the airport are illuminated in neon colors. The visual cacophony of lights across their cityscape is mostly whimsy but with a dash of garish.
- There are porters in the souq that are armed with wheelbarrows and ready to wheel your purchases to your car.