Qatar, Middle East
Qatar was something else altogether from Abu Dhabi – I’ll tell you another time about the falcons on the plane heading for the Falcon souk!
We landed at night amidst luminescent city lights, Christmas-tree bright. However, by day, Doha city is dusty and under construction with building sites and diggers everywhere.
We had the incredible pleasure of being hosted by good friends from our village who had moved out with work. Our kids and their kids are friends. They live in a jaw-dropping, high-ceilinged house in a secure compound with a gym and a pool.
They also have a beautiful garden, unusual in a desert city, which needs constant watering but yields a haven of tranquillity. I used it to pace around and practise my readings. We ate very un-Qatari food: lasagne, a Filipino stew and a chicken coconut curry that I cooked. Visiting other friends for an evening, we ate rice and Kenyan tilapia, baked in cream and mustard.
We had three school author visits in all, to Sherborne Qatar, Qatar International School Primary and QIS Secondary: working with a total of around 1600 pupils. Again, I’ll tell you about those another time, but just to say I had a warm welcome with bright-eyed and intelligent students in all three places.
We were told that Qatar is behind Dubai in terms of its economic development and cosmopolitan culture; perhaps by 15 years. Native Qataris are favoured by the government, supported with housing and jobs for life. The expat adventurers forge their way alongside them, less secure in their jobs but enjoying life in Doha.
It’s very attractive, with the souks (markets) and the Corniche, a waterfront promenade that runs along Doha Bay. While I worked, the kids went exploring and spotted camels and trinkets. Meanwhile, our driver took us on multiple trips across town where we saw palatial government buildings for ministries of transport, education and housing; and arrived at a tranche of skyscrapers. One of the teachers told me several had been empty for years, despite the country being oil-rich.
In general, I really enjoyed my experience of Qatar. I loved the heat, and exploring our friends’ compound. The teachers and pupils were so welcoming, and Qatari culture is rich and fascinating. Many wealthy families own big cats: such as panthers and cheetahs!
All too soon, it was time to fly to Dubai and onto Al Ain in the desert for the next part of the adventure.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
I love travelling. I enjoy seeing the cultural differences. In the Middle East, Coke cans have Arabic writing on them and you frequently see elegant Arab couples contrastingly dressed: the men in white robes and the women in black.
Abu Dhabi is hot and dusty; the city centre being a broad block of skyscrapers lining the coast, with towering hotel apartments everywhere. In Abu Dhabi they drive on the right, fast, overtaking each other on both sides. Driving between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the hot sun sank into the sand and the mosques started to glow green. We traversed Yas and Saadiyat Islands to get to the hotel apartment, Bin Majid Tower, our home for the week, with a pool on the 18th floor and views across the Arabian Gulf.
The first week was about acclimatising and setting up author visits. We enjoyed two relaxing days visiting my aunt at a five-star hotel, the St Regis Saadiyat Island. I walked along the beach picking up shells while Phoebe played 18 holes of golf. The kids swam and read and we buried my youngest son in the sand. We also got painfully sunburned. Well, me and the boys. The girls were more sensible.
We visited Cranleigh School on the beautiful Saadiyat Island: the two-year-old sister to Cranleigh in England which is 150 years old! Unlike its English counterpart, Abu Dhabi’s Cranleigh is a huge white box, gorgeously interior-designed in bright colours. Inside, the pupils wear school uniforms that would place them comfortably in England. Sadly, the education authority didn’t grant me permission to speak at Cranleigh (we found out towards the end of the book tour). But that’s also part of cultural life in Abu Dhabi: living with the unexpected.
As in much of the UAE, migrant workers tend to be Indians, Pakistanis, Africans and Filipinos. Consequently, supermarkets and restaurants emit the aromas of these cultures. Wandering around downtown Abu Dhabi, we found hidden barber shops, Indian cafes and cheap launderettes. An SFC Plus (like KFC) became a firm favourite with the kids because of its butter rice and super-spicy deep-fried chicken.
Too soon, it was time to move on to Qatar for our next adventure. But more of that next time.
Joshua Raven, novelist. Read about my writing and my life here. And have you discovered 5fingers yet?