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By Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

Ever since tales of Aladdin and stories of magic carpets swept my imagination away in grade school, my desire to journey through the Arabian Peninsula has never waned. Now, all these many years later, my dream is finally realized. My husband Rick and I arrive in Qatar, the small country that juts into the Arabian Sea like a thumb off Saudi Arabia's border, to discover how this culture steeped in tradition has melded with modernity.

Photo 7: Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif (market) is the perfect place to soak up tradition. Waqif existed since the days when Bedouin nomads traded goats, sheep and wool for essential items. Time has not changed the maze of passageways with mud rendered walls and wood beamed ceilings. We meander past small shops piled high with spices, dates, figs, perfumes, pots, plastic everything, aquarium fishes, and puppies. Photo 6: Sheik Purchases Falcon

A father passes with his small daughter clinging to his one hand, while in the other he carries his purchase - a falcon. The ancient art of falconry dates back to at least the 7th century BC, and although Westerners find using these birds of prey for sport objectionable, it is prevalent in the Arab countries and the Bedu are the grand masters.

Photo 4. Hussain's Hookah Demonstration

Every café in the market is filled with customers puffing their choice of sheesha (flavoured tobacco) through bubbling water pipes called hookahs. The air is opaque with smoky bouquets of sweet apple, strawberry, rose and mint. Seeing Rick puzzling over a hookah apparatus, Hussein, a waiter at Café Tasse, invites us out back where a dozen pipes are being made ready for patrons.

In a Sheesha 101 lesson Hussein demonstrates the basics. Billows of smoke rise into the air with each puff. Rick tries next. With my camera aimed, I wait…and wait for a billow…ahhh, at last, a pouf of smoke the size of a walnut. "Not as easy as it looks," claims Rick, as Hussein cheers, "Way to go!"

Photo 5: Rick's Hookah Attempt

Upon checking our "must do" list, we note that seeing the desert landscapes and camel races are in the forefront. Our new friend Jerri, an expatriate who works in the country's oil industry, graciously offers to drive us to the unique limestone formations known as "desert mushrooms" at Bir Zekreet, and lucky for us, the famed camel race track of Al-Shahaniya is on the way!

Photo 1: Camel Race

As we approach the track, my heart leaps at the sight of these "ships of the desert" in compounds along the roadway; strings of them crisscrossing the highway bringing traffic to a halt. We pull into the Al-Shahaniya complex and gleefully make our way close to the track. Practicing jockeys and camels in bunches stir up clouds of dust as they race by. Some of the jockeys bouncing along on adult camels also hold the reins of a juvenile camel with no rider; no doubt a learning process for the gangly young 'uns.

Photo 2: Desert Mushrooms

Leaving this sport of sheikhs, we barrel south again arriving at Bir Zekreet for sunset. The fading light casts an eerie glow over the weirdly spectacular "mushrooms", the result of winds that have whittled away the softer sedimentary rock leaving pillars below large intact tops - a geography lesson of desert formation.

Photo 3: Doha Skyline

Back in Doha we stroll past mega-skyscrapers along Al-Corniche, the U-shaped avenue that hugs the shimmering turquoise Gulf waters. Then it is on to superlative stadiums of Sport City, built for the 2006 Asian Games. At the nearby Villagio Mall the extravagance must be seen to be believed. Shoppers take time for a gondola ride along the faux-Venetian canal running through the middle of the mall's ultra-wide corridors. Qatari men in impeccable white throbe (floor-length shirt-dress) twirl prayer beads of pearls, jade, or gold. Women's abeyyas (black robes) and hejabs (head scarves) are trimmed with gold, silver or gems; their fingers flash diamonds the size of marbles. As we leave the mall we notice a Lamborghini with gold wheel rims; it's the ultimate in excess.

Qatar is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world, and along with crude oil and banking, it has one of the fastest growing world economies. The country is ruled by the popular emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose family has been in power since the mid-18th century. In 2005 a cabinet and advisory council was voted in to assist in the running of Qatar. I came away feeling a genie had granted my wish. I'd found the Arabia of old in the bazaar-like souqs and harsh desert terrain, was dazzled by the boom decade's riches, and warmed by Bedouin hospitality.


For More Info:

Visas - Canadians can obtain a visa upon entry.

Qatar's population is 900,000; 75% are expatriates and 25% Qataris.

Climate: Summer (May - September) average day temp 35C (95F) but can surpass 50C (122F) high humidity and frequent dust storms. Winter - pleasant day temp 26C (80F) with cooler evenings. Most of the 8cm of annual rainfall occurs during Dec and Jan.

Religion - most Qataris, like Saudi Arabians, adhere to the austere Wahhabi sect of Islam, with strict codes of conduct. Visiting women are not required to don traditional dress (as in Saudi Arabia) but all visitors should dress conservatively.

PHOTOS : Rick Butler
1. Camel Race
2. Desert Mushroom
3. Doha Skyline
4. Hussain's Hookah Demonstration
5. Rick's Hookah Attempt
6. Sheik Purchases Falcon
7.Souq Waqif

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