Ah, the year-end recap. Some silly things, some momentous things–and not just a rehash of old blog posts. Genuine new material here.
1. We got a pet.
Well, not really. But we did get Sugar Duck, a very easily anthropomorphized sugar canister from Turkey. He speaks with a lisp, and sounds sweet, but sometimes he can be a bit snippy. Peter and I are rapidly progressing toward being one of those awful couples who only talk to each other via hand puppets.
3. I got a cover story in a magazine, and I won an award.
Please indulge my career brags briefly. I was moving too fast this year to fully appreciate these things at the time. Typing it now, I feel kinda bad-ass.
Both were via New Mexico magazine, where I’m always honored to be published. The cover story was this roundup of cool hotels in my home state, in the October ’12 issue.
Actually, everywhere is. I don’t think [redacted] appreciates this, and I feel sad for him.
5. I took up a sport.
If you consider hula hooping a sport. It’s certainly more of a workout than I usually get, a bit of a break from my couch-and-bonbons schedule. And, remarkably, it is the only physical activity I have ever been reasonably good at on first attempt.
6. I made friends in Arabic.
For all my years studying Arabic, I have never actually gotten to know someone in the Mid East purely by speaking in that language. That has a lot to do with studying at fancier schools in Egypt, where most people speak English as a second language.
This year, I went to more French-as-backup countries, and my French sucks. And those countries also happen to have some charming and outgoing–and patient–women I’m honored to have met.
7. I went back to Morocco with my parents.
They spent a lot of time there in the late ’60s, which is why I have the name I have. I also finally figured out what my name is really supposed to be in Arabic.
(Oh, sh*t! The book! Why am I writing this blog post when I should be writing the book?!)
8. I turned 40.
And I feel pretty good about it. Even though I almost immediately had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. Life is so much easier at 40 than at 20. And so is traveling.
9. I might have just hit my limit with traveling.
I hope this isn’t related to the previous point. But it was a long year. As I’m writing this, I should have been on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. But general tiredness and a creeping sense of responsibility made me stay home. What’s happening?!
I do have a book to write (ack, sh*t!), and that requires sitting still. I’m a little behind schedule. After this post, you might not hear from me for another month or so.
(The book, in case you’re new here, has a lot to do with “the Arab nations”–and how they’re a great place to travel.)
I dedicate 2012 to all the wonderful people I met on my adventures: Maala, Btissam, Said, Alaa, Mido and family (oh, that was late 2011–but still!), Agnes, Holly, Arva, the women behind Qatar Swalif, Habooba, the Asrani family, and many, many more.
May your 2013 be filled with nourishing food and kind strangers.
I think I cottoned to Doha for one huge reason: street food.
A while back, Anissa Helou posted something on her blog about take-away food at Souq Waqif in Doha. On my Emirates trip, I’d been snooping around for traditional Emirati food, but it’s a little hard to find done well. People don’t go out for it at restaurants typically. So when I went to Doha, I went straight over to the Souq Waqif after visiting the Museum of Islamic Art.
I didn’t see the souq before they redid it, and some people say it’s too slick now, but I can handle a discreetly signed Haagen-Dazs store if the place still seems like locals use it more than be-fanny-packed tourists. I saw a lot of nice cafes and restaurants, and I was already giddy from that, since I hadn’t seen such a casual hangout space in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. And I saw lots of spices, blinged-out fabrics and even some little colored chicks for sale.
But then I rounded a corner on the far side of the market and SHAZAM!
I bellied up to one of the tables and asked to see what was in the pots. I wound up with a big container of hisw, a seed that had been boiled to jelly, and seasoned with sugar, ghee, saffron and black pepper. Then scrambled eggs were stirred in. Dude.
I went back to those ladies and got great stuff from them all three nights I was in Doha.
Deep down, I admit I’d been feeling a little suspicious of the Emirates because there was no street food–I just couldn’t wrap my head around a place like that. To be fair, there are perfectly good reasons why you might not want to be eating food on the street, and why no one would want to sell it to you: namely, every degree of heat over 100, which is quite common.
So why does it flourish in Doha (perhaps only in this one spot in the whole country, but still), and not the Emirates? Those ladies were freezing their butts off the nights I was there. I don’t know what happens in the summer. I did read something in passing about a Qatari program to teach traditional foods–maybe that also encourages the food-sellers here?
And that’s not to say there aren’t amazingly good things to eat in the Emirates–they’re just indoors. Check out I Live in a Frying Pan, and the post she wrote for Serious Eats about Dubai eats. I got to eat lunch with Arva at a Rajasthani restaurant that filled my ghee quota for the decade.
In both places, I was happily surprised about the food. It just made me a tiny bit nervous in the Emirates to have to really plan to find it. And I would totally recommend a trip to Doha just for the Souq Waqif.
I love getting on a plane with no luggage. It has happened only a couple of times in my life. I feel ridonkulously jet-set. This time, I packed just a tote bag to fly from Dubai to Doha overnight. I was going to meet some excellent smart people, and to see the Museum of Islamic Art. Doha was so great that I went back again for a few more days at the end of my trip.
I went straight from the plane to the museum, in one of Doha’s adorable Tiffany’s-blue taxis, where the West African cabbie was playing American R&B.
The museum is beautiful. Seriously, drop dead. The building is lovely.
The collection is amazing, and gorgeously arranged, all carefully spotlit in black rooms.
They even solved the astrolabe problem (ie, what to do with 800 of them). Nice presentation, right?
Even the food is fantastic. Alain Ducasse is on the case.
And, y’know, just to be extra-classy, they have free wi-fi.
I think this is a bit of a trend in museum-ing, to just let objects speak for themselves, no interpretation. And perhaps that’s more extreme in this case, where the aim may have been to separate the objects from all this messy Islam business and the complicated past and just look at things as incredibly gorgeous works of art. Which they are.
The contrast was even more dramatic when I came back on my next visit and went to the Takashi Murakami exhibit and the Cai Gui-Qiang show at Mathaf. Both of these shows were amazing, in part because they were presented in a distinctly didactic way. “Hello, meet Takashi Murakami. He’s famous for X, Y and Z, and to appreciate him, you should know 1, 2 and 3.”
I admit I hadn’t appreciated Murakami before. At this show (where you can’t take pics inside), I could get up close and see the layers of acrylic paint. I saw the change in his style. And the enormous Arhat installation, huge panels in part a reaction to the Japan tsunami (here’s a detail), got me in the gut the way his glossier stuff never has.
Over at Mathaf, I learned all about this Chinese guy (who, der, is quite famous and has been doing things in NYC for ages and I’ve totally missed). The space showed work he’d created specifically for Mathaf–smart stuff showing the connection between where he’s from in China and the Gulf–along with footage of his previous pyrotechnic works and some of his wonderful early oil paintings of explosions.
I even learned a ton of weird stuff about Arabian horse breeding, from a video he produced. Again, a very educational, meet-the-artist approach.
I love that Qatar is investing so heavily in art. I just want to see the next step in the Museum of Islamic Art. The absence of interpretation there seems like a waste. “Explaining” art–giving more historical background, translating some of the calligraphy–shouldn’t hurt at all. The museum could use some of the same exuberant let-us-tell-you-about-this-amazing-stuff! spirit in the other two exhibits.