Doha, Qatar - a Walk in the City before Dohaland demolition began
Doha - a Tale of Two Cities
Two cities? Yes. There is the Doha the authorities want to promote and there is the other Doha. The Doha of dusty streets, overcrowding, slum dwellings, little corner shops, juice stalls and street restaurants. Vibrant Doha, walkers' Doha - my Doha. But it is disappearing fast. Much of what is photographed here is already gone.
The New Doha is not hard to find. Pick up any tourist guide and you can read about the 5-star hotels, shopping malls that look like a copy of Vegas's copy of Venice, world-class sporting facilities, international conferences and debates, and of course Al Jazeera Satellite Channel. Most guide books, afraid of offending, coyly refer to 'the controversial Al Jazeera TV'. It has in fact challenged and broken the comfortable Western monopoly on English language news. Jazeera is right up there with CNN and BBC with at least an equal claim to journalistic integrity.
Al Jazeera TV
Al Jazeera Network
Al Jazeera is much more than an Arabic News Channel. As well as the original Al Jazeera (Arabic) Satellite Channel, there are the Sports Channels, the Documentary Channel, the Live Channel (Mubasher) covering live events and the much acclaimed English Channel. For political reasons, this is not available directly in US, but can be accessed via the web.
Venice has arrived
Complete with Grand Canal, electric gondolas and a synthetic Mediterranean sky, Venice has arrived in Qatar, to quote the huge billboards all around the city. It's fine for those impressed by such things. I just wonder how long it will be before the streets of Rome are boasting - Doha has arrived in Italy!
OK, Let's start walking!
So much for the New Doha. Let's now start the walking tour of the real Doha. Like many cities, Doha developed haphazardly as an urban sprawl with no clear centre. But it's generally accepted that the old town centre is around the Sofitel and Souq areas. So we'll start there, by going to a high place - the roof of the Sofitel (Mercure) hotel - for a look around.
The Corniche & West Bay
Here we're looking over the old commercial area towards the Corniche. The high rise buildings on the skyiline are the New Doha, a soul-less place I am pleased to avoid. Unlike Dubai, which appears to have planned its modernisation, Doha has been led by the nose by quick-buck developers. The resulting hotch-potch of skyscrapers is about as ugly as anywhere on the planet.
The nearer area we're looking down on is a sprawl of lo-rise shops and office blocks, of no architectural interest and largely of poor construction quality, but perfectly functional, coherent and alive.
Now turn around...
Would you live here?
This is one of the city's slum districts, right in the heart of town. It is home to a huge mainly Pakistani community living cheek by jowl in rough concrete shacks with minimal services and facilities. It's a place of corrugated iron and cockroaches, of fallen and falling buildings, and of hope and pride against all the odds. There are no women here. The low-paid workers are not allowed to bring their wives, even if they could afford to. The State categorises them as bachelors and denies them right of assembly in public places. It's not good, apparently, for rich shoppers to see poor workers.
Here's a typical commercial block not a hundred yards from our Sofitel vantage point. Notice the exquisitely honed rectangular windows set off by neat vertical grey-green stripes, the colour clearly chosen to blend perfectly with the shit-brown rust streak to the left.
Then we have an interesting creation in vertical concrete slat-work. This building, marking the top of the romantically named Electricity Street, was nominated for recognition as a Wonder of the Modern World, simply for not falling down. The corporation refuse skips (lower right) also add a certain je ne sais quois.
Next we have a tree on a plinth. Deciduous trees being scarce in the desert, it is a principle here never to destroy one unless there is no choice. So, when urban clearance takes place, the bulldozers clear everything around, but leave the few trees standing proud, like this.
At this point, I'd like to remind you that my walk is in 40C (105F) desert sun. I'm pleased to suffer for my art, all to bring you such sights of wonder!
This one's interesting. On the right, a tree on a plinth, but you know all about these now. Lots of cleared desert, then in the middle distance, a strange token fortification standing on a rock platform. Here and there in Doha, they have built lumps of pseudo heritage. This particular one is living on borrowed time, as there are development plans for the whole cleared area. Beyond, there is the Rydges Hotel, with views over the Corniche and the Royal Palace. Rydges is due for demolition in 2009. Something to do with overlooking the Royal Palace...
And finally -
Even I, allergic as I am to five star hotels and shopping palaces, occasionally am forced to recognise that my wardrobe is in need of a few extra items. No problem. Doha has all the top names, all the fashion houses, outfitters, haute couturiers from every continent but Antartica. We're spoilt for choice. We're so lucky! We even have...