I have been driving around Doha for the last couple of days, which was initially daunting because they drive on the wrong side of the road and almost every intersection is controlled by a roundabout. Roundabouts I generally regard as one of the more enlightened forms of traffic control: as long as everyone keeps cool and keeps moving the traffic slips on through with no problems at all. But add in the factors of having to remember to look the other way, and the standard of Qatari driving they can be a bit nerve wracking. We're all still alive, though, and I've gone a long way through the heat and dust with large 4X4s looming in the rear view mirror with the driver mouthing in Arabic unkind things about my parents .
Doha is about the size of Auckland, both in geographical and demographic terms. It is criss crossed by a network of new roads, often up to 8 lanes wide, which feed traffic into a maze of smaller and often older streets. Yesterday the wide roads took us to the Villagio, a shopping Mall dressed up as Venice, complete with a canal, gondolas and Rennaisance facades.This is just the place to go if you want a bit of a bargain on that new Porsche or you're sick of the old Rolex. It has a wonderful Dean and Delucca deli and lots of places where you can buy big brand name stuff for cheap. While Clemency and Bridget sought out the bargains, I paid 21 Riyal (about $8) for a glass of orange juice and wondered if they did test drives on the Porsches until I remembered the roundabouts.
Later in the day we went to another city. The old Doha: the Souk. Or at least, it's what people think the old Doha should have looked like if it had only got its act together. The Souk is a labyrinth of small shops selling Arabic stuff. There's no airconditioning. There are old guys with wheelbarrows who follow you around so you don't have to carry whatever it is you've bought. It has spices and colour and people smoking Shisha and a shop which sells falcons, the birds not the cars and accessories for the same. There's been a Souk here for a very long time but the old one was a bit tatty so they replaced it with a better one complete with authentic antique Islamic ATMs, I kid you not. We bought strange sweets and "pies" made from 30 second old flatbread stuffed with deliciousness and Arabic family baboushka dolls.
Then today another Doha. This is one the Emir, so rumour has it, has marked for demolition as soon as he's finished spending the trillions required for the massive up to the second hyper-city that is arising from nothing all around the shoreline. We visited the Islamic cultural centre, where we were received with great warmth and hospitality. We were given an expensive looking book on Islam, water, and Arabic tea and coffee. We were taken into the mosque and told why people never take the Koran into the toilet, or write in it, or place it on the ground, or carry it under their arm. We were given an object lesson on how to make a faith look hospitable and attractive that I only wish my own Diocese could observe and learn from. Then we went outside into the bit of Doha that the Emir is not so keen on. It is all flat, ugly 1960s modernist architecture and streets clogged with cars and battered airconditioners spewing hot air into the already 50 degree noontime. We went into a mall that sold nothing but Burkas: dozens and dozens of small shops displaying black frocks whose coloured cuffs and collars were the only distinguishing feature; and incongruously, all the tailors and salespeople seemed to be Indian men.
And incidentally there is lesson in here somewhere about the relationship of the genders in Islamic society, which is not quite as we Westerners have caricatured it. There is a story to be told that can only be told by Islamic women, and, obviously, they are hardly likely to tell it to me. But family life here is kinder, softer, richer, more finely nuanced, more balanced than I had imagined it to be. In the Souk I passed a man my own age. He was handsome and dignified in his thobe and kaffiyeh. He was holding hands with a very old man, obviously his father, and the old man, his powers well diminished, had slowed the flow of pedestrian traffic somewhat. The son looked at me and smiled, apologising in a glance for holding me up, but expressing not the slightest degree of embarrassment or regret. It was a 10 second vignette of love and belonging which spoke a depth of family life we have long lost, if ever we had it.
All this life and vitality and eclecticism and ability to get things done and openness to the future and good taste and style and history and goodness and generosity and decency are not what I expected of Arabia and I find it enormously attractive. At 1 am tomorrow we will drive to Doha airport and begin the long, albeit quite comfortable thank you ma'am trip back to the land of the long white cloud. From this perspective New Zealand looks very young and very cold. I will be happy to get back, but hope it won't be long before I'm here, where it all started, once again.