Last year, I came to Doha for the Al Jazeera Forum and broke every rule I have for myself as a traveller. I try very hard to make sure I get at least one good walk in every city I visit, to make sure I eat as many meals as I can outside of the hotel, and generally come away with some sense of what a city’s like, even if I’ve had only a brief visit. But last year’s Forum was such a whirl of activity, I literally didn’t manage to leave the hotel save for a guided tour of the station’s headquarters. I’d hoped to go from the station out to dinner with friends, but the Danish Cartoon situation was erupting, and I spent my evening discussing and arguing about the situation with friends who were hanging around the newsroom.
So this year, I came prepared. I arrived in Doha a day before the Forum began so I’d have a fair chance at actually seeing some of the city. And I did my research. Or tried to. You see, Doha isn’t exactly a tourist mecca. Asking people who live in Qatar what they do for fun, more than one person answered, “We go to Dubai.” One of the better guide sites I found was titled, “Qatar is NOT the most boring place”. Well, with a recommendation like that, how can you go wrong? But most travel guides seem to agree that Doha is a pretty quiet town – perhaps the strongest praise I found was: “Not the most exciting place in the world, but if you make the effort you can have a very enjoyable stay.”
So I set out this morning, jetlagged, with camera and city map in tow for a walk. And Qatar isn’t the most boring place – that’s Lubbock, Texas, in case you were wondering. But Doha is very much a work in progress. Walking out of my hotel, I counted at least a dozen new buildings surrounded by cranes. There’s clearly an (international, expatriate, pan-Muslim world) army of construction workers here… somewhere. But they weren’t at the souk, the market district of the city. Midday on a weekend, this part of the city couldn’t be described as sleepy. I sometimes turn or move in my sleep, and the souk was even less active than that. I walked to the harbor, where wooden dhows are being rebuild into floating restaurants and enjoyed the breeze off the startlingly blue water. Joggers run on the Corniche, and families play in the shade of palm trees. It’s pretty idyllic, but less fun if you didn’t pack running shoes or children to entertain you.
So where is everyone on this beautiful spring day? In the mall. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people are in the City Center Mall, a five story complex optimistically described as comparing with America’s best malls. (I’m not a mall fan, so I’ll leave the details of that comparison alone, save to say that most American malls aren’t centered around grocery stores…) There’s a United Nations worth of people eating lunch in the food court, from short-haired, thick-necked Americans next to me (who are almost certainly from the nearby military base) to Filipino parents with children in communion dresses to women in dress ranging from short skirts through to hijab. It’s tempting to spend the whole day watching people order Kentucky Fried Chicken and guess where in the world they’ve come from.
But just down the air-conditioned corridor is the perfect way to spend a Saturday in Doha: watching hockey. Ice hockey. It’s the “Fire on the Ice” championship series, the finals of an ongoing competition of hockey teams from around the gulf. I watch the first two periods of the Qatar Breakers, who get crushed by the Dubai Mighty Camels. The Breakers have a tendency to pick up penalties, which is deadly in five on five hockey as you can give up a lot of goals while you’re a man down. It’s hockey, but not quite as we know it – the ice here in Qatar is almost a square sheet, so it’s a very unusual shape for players to cover. The puck is a hard rubber ball, probably because the ice is so soft a puck wouldn’t slide well. And anything more aggressive than a solid forecheck seems to get you four minutes on the bench…
There’s several hundred people watching the game, leaning over the ice on four tiers of balconies. The guys around me – Filipino and Indonesian construction workers enjoying their weekend – want to know what country the players are from. Almost everyone has a Canadian flag patch on their jersey. “Is this the Canadian national team?” Uh, no. But they’d do very well in a pickup game onn your local rink, and I’ve got major respect for anyone who manages to get in ice time while living in the Persian Gulf. It’s got to be a disconcerting audience to play for – everyone in the crowd laughs when someone falls on the ice. I try cheering good saves and good checks for a bit, before discovering that I’m attracting about as much attention as the players.
So yes, hockey in the Persian Gulf. I’ve got pictures to prove it – alas, I packed the wrong cable, so you may have to wait until I’m back in the states to see the evidence. (Bless you, Jonathan. I owe you one and will get you back when I’m next in the Netherlands…) But take it from me – if you’re in Doha on a Saturday, be sure to catch a hockey game. I’m sure they import Canadians every weekend for the general amusement of the working public. Here’s hoping that they start curling on Sundays sometime soon…