From Qatar

2012: The Year in “Wow, that happened?”

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.

After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!
After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!

2. I made Saveur!
Well, really, the excellent restaurant The Curious Kumquat made Saveur, as #39 in the Saveur 100. It just happened to be my name at the end.

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.

And the award was from the International Regional Magazine Association, for the feature I wrote in 2011 about taking the train to Las Vegas, NM [PDF].

The best awards are the ones you didn’t even know you were up for. A Macarthur is next, right?

4. I traveled alone throughout the Middle East, and I did not die.
Back in February, I was quoted in a story about how Americans were still traveling to the Middle East.

A reader felt compelled to warn me of my foolhardiness:

Hi,
I know you feel travel to the Arab nations is safe, but you need to appreciate is how fast the situation over there can change and as an American you are a symbol of hate at the moment.

We had the student hiker’s capture, when the USA has plenty of Mountains to climb.

We have the Aid workers freed by the Navy Seals in Somalia; BTW I think 10 Somalia’s were killed. So sad considering the Aid workers could be doing aid work in plenty of places right here in the USA.

Please don’t promote the middle east until women in Saudi Arabia can drive and vote. Or until women can choose their own husband.

[redacted]

Er.

Anyway, “the Arab nations” (I can’t vouch for Iran or Somalia) I visited this year are safe. I even picked up hitchhikers in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE is unintentionally hilarious; Doha is delicious; Lebanon has great hiking; Morocco is full of sweet people.

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.

My dad sat down here and said sardonically, "Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man." Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.
My dad sat down here and said sardonically, “Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man.” Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.

All the details will be in the book.

(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.

Also, many ice cream sundaes!
Also, many ice cream sundaes!

Doha, the Rest of the Story

For spending about 72 hours in a country, I sure managed to collect a lot of photos and deep thoughts. I think the short time in Qatar made it that much easier to distill the whole visit.

Meanwhile, all my driving around the Emirates is all loose and floppy in my head, and I’m still fiddling with what I got out of it (aside from some funny pictures).

I’ll just throw a few more Doha photos at you to finish off this clutch of posts about the Persian, ahem, Arabian Gulf.

Doha: Food at Souq Waqif

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!

Ragag, like a crepe complete, minus the ham...and with mayo
Homemade pickles and chutney thingies

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.

Better than it looks. And sounds.

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.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

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.

Looks a tiny bit like Boba Fett, right?

The museum is beautiful. Seriously, drop dead. The building is lovely.

The collection is amazing, and gorgeously arranged, all carefully spotlit in black rooms.

Screens from clay water jars
Astrolabes. Like I said, they're everywhere.

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.

Lentil salad, egg, some kind of savory biscotti-bit, tangy sauce.

And, y’know, just to be extra-classy, they have free wi-fi.

But…I wish it said more. All the things I learned about Islamic art on this trip, I learned at the dowdier Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah the day before. At that museum, many of the objects were somewhat crude replicas. But the signage told me all about calligraphy styles, the embroidery on the kiswa at the Kaaba and that elephant clock I’d seen at the Ibn Battuta Mall.

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.”

Inflatable Murakami

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.

Stones from Quanzhou, carved with inscriptions from the Muslim cemetery there

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.

For now, the most exuberant thing is the food.