It’s winter. While all around the world people are retreating indoors and wrapping up for the cold months ahead, it’s time to get out in the Gulf . From April to October in Doha, daytime temperatures can reach between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius. Right now, as I write in the outdoor seating area of my hotel, it’s mid afternoon and the temperature is holding steady at a perfect 25. During these cooler months, we Doha dwellers hit the beaches, take to the parks for picnics and frequent the many eateries with outdoor seating areas everywhere from the coastal spots like the Pearl to the inner City areas like Al Saad. Many places, like the Aspire Park and the Corniche can be heaving in winter. Especially at weekends.
Winter in Doha also means the annual camping season is in full swing. Many Qatari’s go back to their roots and set up huge homes away from home, deep in the desert. Their encampments can range from the very simple to the ornately grand truly amazing. Some are complete with huge generator fuelled electricity, trains of staff and satellite TV.
For me, winter in Doha means a chance to do something I love a whole lot; walk. Due to the stifling heat, for most of the year we spend our time going from one air conditioned building to another, hiding in cars in between. Having grown up in Britain, I like nothing more than to walk. Be it a quick turn about a pretty garden, a long park stroll, a morning wandering unfamiliar streets or a visit to the market, I find walking great for the mind, body and spirit. Perhaps it’s the explorer DNA in me, but to not be able to walk is to suffer, in my view. For that reason, April to October is a huge challenge for me here. It’s the time when I and many others gain weight, exercise less and feel a little down. it’s the time of the year when you most often hear the perennial blues in all their glory;
“This year is my last year in Doha.”
“Yep, I think this is it for us!”
“I can’t take it anymore.”
“I think I’ve had enough of the Middle East.”
Then winter rolls around and it becomes;
“I think I’ll give it one more year.”
“It’s not that bad really!”
“I’m happy I’m not back in the UK…States…Canada!! It’s freezing over there!”
My winter walks this year have taken me around new parts of Doha I haven’t previously explored. I’m in the C Ring Road/Al Saad/ Fereej Bin Mahmoud area. It’s close to one of very few of what we call night club’s in Doha; La Cigale. A popular spot for Expats and tourists. The restaurants, cafes, shops and Plaza/ Mini Malls in this area of town make it a great place to explore on foot when the heat is down.
Qatar is a conservative, Islamic ruled country. This creates a unique perspective amongst the people, On top of that, the country has huge numbers of migrant male workers. Walking in the streets here is an interesting experience for a woman. In the West women do Slut Walks in defiance of a system that shames them and excuses sexual objectification assault or perhaps rape if they wear “slutty” clothes. Here in Doha walking the streets, even fully covered (and you know that out here that fully covered often means “fully”) is somewhat an act of defiance. Qatar’s neighbour, Saudi Arabia recently lifted a ban on women driving but Qatar has long had female drivers. In the whole region, while there isn’t an official ban on women walking the streets, there is certainly an informal one at work in the minds of many men.
To take a street walk as a woman here, whether it be in the morning, afternoon or the evening (a time certainly reserved for men) is to go against the status quo. It’s a rebellious, even revolutionary act. The reactions of the men tell you that if you’re walking the streets you’re either loose, lost or really in need of help. Woman! For sure, you’ve lost you damn mind! Perhaps all of the above! As I walked this morning, I lost count of the number of times a Taxi driver, licensed or otherwise sounded his horn to let me know he was available and willing to rescue me; despite me not giving any indicator of such a need. I even had one driver sound the horn several times while he approached me from behind and as he passed me by, insisting that I must need him to pick me up. Once past me, he completely ignored a man who was signalling quite emphatically, hand in the air and all, that he actually needed a ride! I got to wondering what a crazy world we inhabit when a woman, who has enough wisdom to know that if I need a Taxi, I will figure it out still has this kind of impact. I can certainly manage and won’t need to wait for the suggestion to know I need a car. If I need one, some random guy without a license, from goodness knows where is really not the kind of driver I would hop in with, even in a country where the penalties for trying any funny business are quite severe!
On last night’s one hour stroll about the town to dream, hit an ATM, get some exercise and see the sights, I ran a gauntlet of hungry, puzzled and desperate eyes. One particular guy, with either something to say to me or impeccable timing for talking to himself, studied me as I approached him from around 100 metres. As I reached him, he spat a few words at me in Arabic. Having no idea of what he said and only the feel of the air to go on, I shuddered. I was relieved that I didn’t know what he said. He may have been saying something quite complimentary but his tone and the look in his eye questioned that. Part of me wanted to ask him to translate, but the other felt that if it was what I thought it was, his night would be ruined not mine. I knew he was sure to have underestimated the cut him down comeback I put together in lightening speed. I passed on and let him have his cigarette and his night in peace. Be sure, I made my walk a little longer in his honour.
Out of respect for the men I passed last night and this morning, I didn’t photograph any of their reactions. It may be a while before they offer the same level of respect for women and adjust their level of awe, disbelief, shock and or whatever enough to avert their eyes. This morning it was still a little hot as I walked along Al Mirqab Al Jadeed Street to grab some bread from the closest thing I could find to a market (Mirqab Mall). I didn’t need a taxi. I simply walked on the shady side of the street. Lovers of freedom, you know what I mean! Haters of it, hold your hands out and catch it this time around, here it comes….
I’m a woman
I don’t value the right to drive.
I value the right to walk at my own pace.
I value the chance to take to the streets
and study the hodgepodge of man’s architecture.
I relish the chance to hear the chaos
of the world on wheels you’ve created
and dream of how we can improve it
when our turn comes around.
When you drive, you miss things.
I prefer to catch the sun
and smile at cats huddled in doorways
I want to hear
that birdsong is the same wherever you go in the world.
I want to walk and pick up what I need for today.
I’ll keep it light enough to meander back.
Not jump from car to car
and go from one commercial mall to another.
I’m a woman
but I don’t value shopping
for yet more underwear
to keep the flames alight
for a man who’s not on fire.
Give me the keys to freedom
and I’ll take a walk.