Joshua Hersh experiences Doha's 'unrelenting newness' and realises that history is not always the key to a city's charms. One evening not too long ago, I sat on the roof deck of a faux-rustic Moroccan restaurant called Tajine, in downtown Doha, eating dinner. I had come to the Gulf in order to attend the fourth annual Al Jazeera Forum - "annual" being a term interpreted (like much in Doha that weekend) with a fair amount of latitude, since the third annual Forum, which I had also attended, took place in 2007. It was a warm Sunday night and the roof was packed with people. The street below, however, which was lined with a mix of Western chains (Häagen Dazs) and Middle Eastern ones (Zaatar w Zeit), was mostly empty.
Toward the end of the meal, as we were sipping mint tea, a local Al Jazeera employee who recognised us from the conference came over to our table with a broad grin and asked how we were enjoying ourselves. "You are in the souk ancien," he said proudly, arms outstretched, and repeated himself: "Ancien!" It sounded even more ludicrous in French, because Doha's "old souk," where we were indeed having dinner, had been rebuilt about five years ago.
This is Doha as I had come to understand it: a place of unrelenting newness, the very embodiment of the new. In the two years since my previous visit, the office towers surrounding the Sheraton Resort and Convention Hotel on the city's West Bay, where I stayed, had practically doubled in number, though the proportion that remained unfinished, roughly half, remained about the same. This is the standard knock on a place like Doha. It is a city that grows without changing its character - or, more precisely and less charitably, without acquiring any. Roads are built on top of desert, then named after whatever landmarks are nearby: Airport Intersection is the turn into the airport, Television Circle is the roundabout outside Al Jazeera's offices. At the Doha Golf Club, there are 10,000 cacti, every last one imported from Arizona.
But this year my trip had an additional purpose, one for which this apparent flaw - the lack of any discernible identity - made Doha oddly well-suited: I was in transit from my home of eight years, New York City, to my home to be, Beirut. In the migration from one old city to another, I would come to realise, Doha was the perfect way station. I had not expected this to be the case, but maybe I should have. Qatar has always been a place for passing through. One of the earliest chroniclers of the land was a geographer named Yaqut ibn Abdullah, born in Greece and raised in Baghdad, who visited the area in the early 13th century. He liked what he saw - a healthy camel industry, a fashionable trade in woven cloaks - and then, as far as we know, he got out of town. For centuries, this was Qatar: a place inhabited by Bedouin nomads, who were known for their unsettled ways, and otherwise populated by travellers and traders who came and went.
There are a couple of clever attractions in modern Doha - the newly inaugurated IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art; the indoor ice hockey rink at the City Center Mall. One afternoon, I went to visit Education City, on the outskirts of town. To get there you drive west from the city until the buildings on both sides of the road yield to empty desert (this doesn't take long). Then, out of nowhere, a dozen more emerge in the distance.
Education City is a project of the Emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al Missned, and it has an impressive collection of institutions: the medical school from Cornell, the engineering school from Texas A&M, the journalism programme from Northwestern, the art school from Virginia Commonwealth University, computer science and business programmes from Carnegie Mellon and the foreign service school from Georgetown. Each is run independently, with its own staff and student body. I was visiting with a young woman from Georgetown's office of student affairs and she beamed with pride as she gave me a tour of her school. (Later, when we went to check out Northwestern, we got lost.)
In the United States, you would say that Georgetown could only exist in Washington, DC, that Northwestern could only be in Illinois - the campuses are defined by their home cities as much as they help to define them in return. And yet, here were six prominent American institutions, coexisting in a 14 square kilometre campus, each retaining a distinct culture; a hybrid of their old and new identities.
It is said that the breadth of a city can be measured by the little ways it manages to surprise you. In Istanbul, the nicest bar in town just might be tucked away on the top floor of the Goethe Institute. And you can live in New York for years before learning that "N Moore Street", in Tribeca, is in fact named for the Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Moore, and not the counterpart to South Moore Street. But these surprises are also a city's challenges - they are its levels of complexity and history - and discovering them day after day, can, frankly, take a lot out of you. In Doha, you are usually safe from such revelations. For the visitor, at least, there is no sense of place, and perhaps this is what allows something like Education City to thrive. Moving from my past to my future, I felt strangely at ease there: it was a clean slate.
As I write this, I am sitting in Beirut, a city still divided - at least notionally - between East and West. The relics of the civil war are evident everywhere: in the shells of ruined buildings; in the resistance of people in the Christian East to speaking Arabic, or those in the Muslim West to speaking French; in the vitriolic rhetoric of candidates for the upcoming election. Several years ago, Beirut's downtown, which had been decimated during the war, was dismantled by a private company, Solidere, and not unlike Doha's "old souk", rebuilt as an ersatz version of its old self - a Disney Downtown. (The Lebanese are more upfront about this manipulation than Qataris; they call their new city centre "Solidere".) Like everything in modern Beirut, the recreation was contentious. To some it reeked of kitsch, a travesty of memory. To others it was what had to be done, a new beginning. The richer the past, it would seem, the more that it still binds the present.
Joshua Hersh is a writer who lives in Beirut