Katy Gillett takes in a cultural tour of Doha's emerging art scene
Katy Gillett travels to the Qatari capital and finds that a burgeoning cultural and culinary scene awaits, as she wanders through the souk and visits the city’s top art galleries, restaurants, museums and mosques.
The sun goes down as the call to prayer sounds from the nearby Fanar Mosque in Qatar’s capital, Doha. I’ve just found a Mona Lisa replica (with the female face covering, the niqab, scribbled onto it in marker pen), outside a small souvenir shop in the renovated marketplace, Souq Waqif. I turn to see two young Qatari security guards ride past on white Arabian stallions as the local shopkeeper, who has been watching me admire his products, politely invites me in to see what else he has. ‘No problem,’ he says, when I decline, eager to explore the rest of the souk. ‘Insh’Allah I will see you again.’
This is Qatar. A small oil-rich country where 1.2 million people of all nationalities reside, and it’s a place where creativity and innovation abound. For years Qatar has sat quietly in the shadow of its neighbouring Gulf countries. Comparatively, the country’s expansion plans seem to have been made with much foresight. The plan is to brand Qatar as a cultural hub, and this vision is what takes me there in the first place.
During my two weeks in the country, I manage to briefly explore the eastern coast where Doha, Al Khor and Al Wakrah lie. Qatar is split into seven municipalities, the smallest – yet busiest – of which is Doha. This is where many luxury hotels rub shoulders with towering glass-fronted skyscrapers and, more importantly, striking museums and inviting art galleries.
First on my list of places to see is Katara Valley of Cultures, where among its labyrinthine alleyways hide world-class art exhibitions, five-star restaurants, spacious artists’ studios and workshops and even a national stamp museum. The star that steals the show, however, is its Opera House, home to the 101-member Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. It is in this pristine auditorium that overlooks the Arabian Gulf that I fall in love with Qatar’s artistic vision.
Later, back at Souq Waqif, amid the market stalls, I find winding streets lined with bustling cafés that serve a range of cuisine from authentic Middle Eastern to Asian fusion, and of course, the ubiquitous international brands including Häagen-Dazs and Dunkin’ Donuts. But I also find the Souq Waqif Art Centre, which has recently re-opened to the public after a two-year renovation. It is maze-like with its hidden rooms filled with traditional and modern paintings by lesser-known Qatari artists. Multicoloured mosque lanterns hang from the ceiling and tall date palms sprout from the ground. And there’s a restaurant that spills into an outer courtyard where in winter you can enjoy the cool, breezy air and a rustic Italian feast.
Towards the end of my trip I make it over to the famed Museum of Islamic Art, which was designed by legendary Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei. The limestone-coloured tiered building draws inspiration from ancient Islamic architectural elements and floats over the sea on its own small island jutting out from the main corniche. It is home to some of the most fascinating pieces, ranging from rugs to glassware, and it also holds a vast library of English and Arabic books. And when you’re worn out and hungry from admiring all these pieces, you can now head to the upper floors where famed French chef Alain Ducasse has recently opened a fine-dining café.
Granted, if you’re looking for something old and authentic, this is not the place for you. But if you do get excited by travelling to a place that’s on the cusp of becoming something big, then now is the time to visit Qatar. On leaving, handing my documents to the Qatari lady at passport control, I felt sorry that I wouldn’t witness this growth first-hand. As if sensing this, she looked up at me and asked, ‘How do you like my country?’ I thought about all I had learned, and finally I smiled and said, ‘Insh’Allah I will see you again.’
Need to know
Getting there Flydubai flies direct to Doha from Dhs598 return. www.flydubai.com.