I was not sure what to expect from my first few moments in the richest country in the world but it certainly wasn’t a giant yellow teddy bear. Titled Lamp Bear, this 23-foot quirky installation by Swiss artist Urs Fischer towering over the duty free area of Doha’s Hamad International Airport was my first cue that the city had been hiding a unique cultural renaissance behind its glitzy exterior.
Lamp Bear was a taste of things to come. Everything else I saw in Doha–the gorgeous sea views, my luxurious beach hotel St. Regis Doha, an ancient souq, skyscrapers, malls–Ihad anticipated. But I had not expected such an abundance of interesting and vibrant art. On my first day in the city, I visited Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (www.mathaf.org.qa/en) in Al Rayyan, a city only about a half an hour drive from my hotel. Exhibits from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and, of course Qatar, were political in nature, particularly Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh’s anti-ISIS embroidered textile collages.
The real jewel in Doha’s artsy crown, however, was the Museum of Islamic Art (www.mia.org.qa/en/). Walking through its numerous permanent exhibition galleries (on the second and third floors) were the finest hours I spent in Doha. With a collection of Islamic art from three continents that spans 1,400 years, this temple of art was soul-satisfying. The museum has been organised based on different centuries and categories of art such as ceramics, textiles, jewellery, glassware, armoury, manuscripts. I was so lost in this wonderland of beautiful things that I missed everything else that had been planned for the day. It really isn’t possible to do justice to the MIA in a few hours but I saw enough to recommend the Science in Art section on the second floor that displayed sundials, globes in brass and wood, calendar scrolls, qibla indicators…all rather exquisite. The early Islamic art gallery on the third floor with a lovely ewer collection from the 7th to 12th centuries is especially worth seeing.
Art in Doha is not restricted to museums though. Everywhere I went, I saw quirky installations, such as famous artist Damien Hirst’s foetus sculpture outside the Sidra maternity hospital or Maman, a sculpture of a giant spider, at the Qatar National Convention Centre. Art, it appeared, was a way of life in Doha.
Tourists naturally gravitate to Doha for its top-notch luxury experiences. At the St. Regis Doha (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/dohxr-the-st-regis-doha; doubles from Rs 16,500)where I stayed, guests enjoy a stunning private beach, beds they can sink into, large rooms with windows framing the sea, fabulous restaurants and a number of lovely paintings and sculptures in the public spaces in and around the hotel. In my three nights at the hotel, I received the most impeccable service, always efficient and discreet and, at least for me, it was the epitome of luxury.
Some of the finest restaurants in Doha are also at the hotel itself. For one lunch I had salmon salad and pasta at Gordon Ramsay’s Opal, a fine-dining sensation. For another I had hamour, a local fish, with tabbouleh at the legendary Lebanese restaurant Al Sultan Brahim. Yet another memorable dinner was at the swish steakhouse Astor Grill, where I enjoyed a rib-eye steak, charcoal-grilled to perfection in front of me at the open kitchen. The hotel’s culinary highlights also include Hakkasan and another Gordon Ramsay restaurant, apart from their elaborate Saturday brunch at Vine restaurant, alongside live music.
My stay at the hotel also led to some lesser known cultural discoveries, like the Katara Cultural Village, located across the road from the hotel. It is a large, vibrant, sea-fronted space with event venues, exhibition spaces, cafes and art galleries. Among its many public art displays is a typical balti-and-bartan sculpture by Subodh Gupta. I only discovered Katara on my last day here, not leaving me enough time to explore it fully but between the MIA and this, it gave me good reason to return.
During my three-day visit, I managed to go ona half-day excursion to Al Zubarah, a 1938 military fortress near an 18th-century archaeological site, now in ruins, which is Qatar’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. A flourishing pearling centre in the past, this historical coastal town now lays barren. As I walked towards the Persian Gulf, I could see nothing for miles in every direction–which is largely what all of north Qatar looks like. Throughout my drive to the northernmost tip of Qatar and back, I saw nothingness all around me. It was like a road cutting through the sky. It’s stark and stunning in its own way, though maybe this trip is not for those who like to have things to see and do.
Zubarah reminded me that there was a time when all Qatar had was the sea and the desert. Dhows (traditional wooden boats) and camels were the lifeline for its citizens. There are still dhows at the Dhow Harbour near the MIA but most are now used bytourists to take boating excursions. Most citizens still own a camel but now they are largely employed during the indulgent pastimeof camel racing. Qataris are rich and prosperous and the country is heading into a fast-paced future with huge events like FIFA 2022 coming to town. It is an interesting time to visit the city–on one side is the ancient Souq Waqif, that has been selling spices, perfumes, horses and falcons for over a hundred years, and on the other is the still-under-construction modern city of Lusail, 20 km from Doha, which will boast marinas and luxury retail spaces, hotels and, I suspect, some captivating public art.
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.