A fresh-faced Filipino girl leads me to the till at Kuwait airport duty free, armed with my boarding pass, remaining Kuwaiti Dinaar and, now, three new perfumes for my collection. Inhaling a floral perfume jolts me to life like a sting of electricity, a flashback of imminent normality; an ironic ending to an extraordinary journey. ?You work in Kuwait?? asks the bubbly salesgirl in a high-pitched tone. ?Holiday,? I reply. Thinking she?s misheard, she repeats the question. I explain my holiday to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Completely bewildered by the concept of ?holidaying? there, she giggles to her colleague in Filipino, ?these crazy people spent money to holiday here!?
That pretty much sums up the trip; resistance, reluctance and refusals from the outset. Three separate travel agents did their best to deter me, emphasising ?little to see but sand and oil refineries.? Literally translated, I aspired to the challenge. But, looking back, I wonder if I took it too far. Now, at the end of a gruelling journey the high, of being unwittingly wired on surging adrenaline, surviving solely on nervous energy, becomes a fading light. I start to come down, fast. Drawing my first breath anticipating a return to familiarity and safety, my shoulder muscles begin to loosen. My legs bow under the pressure. Energy?s bleeding out of me like a cut vein; more like dusk dawning than a mist unveiling. Every ounce of trauma, tension and shock that have become my companions, and only familiar constants of the journey, now sets in and takes grip. An intoxicating cocktail of messy emotions blur my head; disappointment that it?s over, panic, even. How to return to ?normality?? Yet I?m relieved and humbled by such incredible memories that many would never comprehend, let alone experience. Drained and emotional, I struggle to understand how a seven hour flight can transport me ?home?, so near but light years apart. Nowhere remains sacred and untouched, it seems everywhere is just a flight away. I?m suddenly reminded of an interview with a soldier, returned from war and at counselling. I begin to understand his struggle to integrate into a ?normal? life, craving a return to the front-line. I wonder if danger can be an addiction, as any other. ?The trip was real,? I pinch myself. Sheer exhaustion snaps me out of thought. Unable to process any of it in this state, pained to even think back to events, I take my purchases and am resigned to the flight home, paralysed and disconnected.
Thing is, I?m a journalist by nature, the profession just followed. I?m intrigued, to a fault, and find myself drawn to trouble; as much in my personal life as professionally. Those that know me will only agree, so I?m being very frank. That, coupled with a fierce desire to explore largely unknown territory, forms an instinct so powerful, I simply can?t not act. What I learned on this trip was just how far I was willing to go and who else I?d drag into the firing line. I now see how the delicately fine line between extreme curiosity and unsurpassable risk gets blurred. I wonder if it?s a quandary every journalist experiences, or every human, even. I explore that dilemma on this distinctive journey…
Qatar, my first destination, is underlined by simmering anticipation of Bahrain. Violence breaks out again as I?ve two days to go. The forces open fire on mourners commemorating their loved ones killed in earlier shootings. Sensitivity is heightened and tensions peak. I try to focus on the country at hand.
The Ritz-Carlton is my kind of hotel; classic, ornate and traditionally opulent. A little large, but I retain the exclusivity, in the way most things are done in the Arab world, by paying for it. Club level is pure whimsy; separate floor accessible only by Club card, private top-floor members? lounge with sweeping views of the Ritz?s own marina out to sea, an exclusive (and complimentary) bar and table service with gourmet food on demand and an exclusive level of service where nothing is too much effort. Small touches in my sumptuous suite are enamouring, as I arrive, fatigued, to a rose-filled bubble-bath, heart-shaped petals strewn on the bed and a bottle of champagne with platter of exotic dates. Heaven begins here.
The view is stark yet honest; modern skyscrapers, sand dunes and construction, all shrouded in a sandy mist. Qatar is Dubai?s silent rival. Development is evolving at a frighteningly rapid pace, despite entire new neighbourhoods being uninhabited; the oil revolution continues. Doha marina boasts walking advertisements. Picture-perfect British families stroll peacefully in the sunshine, beaming a hassle-free lifestyle, young children laughing and playing, relishing a good quality of life. Crime is minimal and tax-free salaries average £70k per annum; all the trappings of a ?good? life. Five days is enough for me.
Finding true local life in Qatar is like soul-mining, an epic feat, and I get annoyed constantly being directed to ?The Pearl,? Qatar?s direct equivalent of Dubai?s ?Palm?. 400 hectares of reclaimed land, dubbed ?the Middle East?s most glamorous location?. It?s a gleaming new waterfront development of designer boutiques, upscale bars, Michelin restaurants, five star hotels, three marinas and pricey luxury apartments, with more shops than people.
Doha offers ease of life, yet ironically feels uncomfortable. Think expensive new shoes; shiny and polished but not yet a second skin. There?s a constant anticipation. The city?s a debutante; prepped, preened and ready for the social season.
It takes me back to Dubai ten years ago, pre-stampede, when I could relax there. Qatar, now, has that air of elite sophistication that I almost cherish, but it seems desperate to shatter this image.
Evesdropping (I know it?s rude!) on a conversation whilst dining in the ultra-prestigious Club Lounge, a fascinating discussion ensues with an American businessman. With a child-like enthusiasm and excitability, much like myself, and links to the Emir of Qatar, H.H Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, he discloses the country?s avant-garde aims of being the next sporting, financial and cultural crown of the Middle East. I had heard all the World Cup 2022 stadia might be temperature-controlled, a fact that?s duly confirmed, as I overhear two English businessmen perfecting their presentation to bid for the contract to build all twelve stadia. The Club Lounge is pulsating with business energy. Perhaps not so incongruous, as one guest lets slip that the palatial mansion hotel is actually owned by the ruler. He even recalls an urgent meeting being called on international security when guests were removed from rooms and banned from the club suite. With a little persuasion, a member of staff quietly confirms this, saying it happens more than ten times a year. He describes the difficulty appeasing angered guests without exposing the reason.
Sport is a big opportunity for Qatar, one it?ll exploit ruthlessly and at any cost; having recently hosted the Asian Games, World Indoor Athletics Championships last year, Asian Football Cup in January and whilst I?m there, the Tennis Ladies Open, with players staying at my hotel. Getting into the lift with international female tennis stars is awkwardly amusing, particularly as I?ve no idea who most are.
So where do locals socialise in Qatar? Isn?t it apt, I think, as I wander ?Souq Waqif?, that people really do spend evenings eating ?Shawarma? (kebabs) and smoking ?Sheesha? (Arabic waterpipe). The cleanest, safest and most hassle-free market I?ve ever visited; I?m not even offered to be traded in for camels. Turns out, it?s an old souq knocked down and replaced with an old-looking new one. It shows. Still, the heady aroma of spices and herbs waft down the labyrinth of alleyways as men with creased faces in white turbans wheel barrows of concrete along the desert rock-coloured winding ways. Riotous bursts of sequinned sarees shimmer in the night lights, hanging outside tatty haberdasheries. I come face-to-face with an Arab laboriously stirring a giant steel vat of Arabic sweet, unphased by thick plumes of white smoke and the alluring smell of ghee. From the plethora of Sheesha cafes, more common here than pubs at home, I head to a roof terrace and people-watch while sipping a smooth rich Arabic coffee. Sienna, ochre and rust hues flirt in the spotlights below. Intermittently, the rumble of Arabic chatter is disturbed by a distant minaret bellowing a melodic call to prayer, floating over the city. Like a giant chess board, women in a sea of long black ?Abbaiyas? hover around men in princely white gowns and head-dresses. Ladies expose their wealth only through glimpses of diamante designer heels and chunky diamonds.
On the final day I head straight to the spa for a rejuvenating deep tissue massage and oxygenating facial. Luckily, I don?t have to venture further than the club floor for the best seafood restaurant in Doha, Ritz-Carlton?s ?La Mer,? boasting full-length views over the city lights. ?Porcini? is a slice of Milano on a plate; an authentic favourite, with delectable desserts of steeped tiramisu, rich panacotta and gooey chocolate fondant.
Qatar is emerging as defiantly permissive in contrast to its strict neighbouring countries. It?s thoroughly modern and I?ll be fascinated to see it in bloom. But it must discover it?s unique character and stop wagging its tail behind Dubai.
Next month: Anisha moves on to Bahrain