Head First

Joyce Lee

As much as I would love to bring readers intrepid tales of enchanted dhows and harrowing camel rides to work, I’m afraid I lead a fairly ordinary (read: camel-less) life in Doha, Qatar. Regardless, read on for a quick impression.

While my Medill comrades-in-arms started their Journalism Residencies this fall in the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago or New York City with its myriad bodegas – I was at home waiting for Ramadan to end. Only then does work resume in the Middle East, signaling my cue to travel for almost 24 hours from Toronto, Canada to Doha, Qatar. It was mostly timing and a teensy measure of passive-aggressive pursuit that landed me a three-month stint at a magazine house in the Gulf. Here I spend my days writing stories for a handful of monthlies (the desperation to score an article in print is eliminated by a dearth of local Web publications) and nursing an unhealthy biryani (a colorful rice dish) addiction.

First, the basics on Qatar: Gulf emirate the size of Connecticut; 1.5 million residents, of whom around 80 percent are expatriates; third-largest natural gas reserves in the world; pronunciation debatable, imperceptibly falling between “Cutter” and “Cat-Are.” Some see Doha as one behemoth construction site, and I don’t blame them. My housing compound, which encompasses rings of dusty, beige buildings eerily reminiscent of the Dharma Initiative (“Lost” nerd alert), is surrounded by an expanse of sand and improvised truck lanes. Every 10 minutes is marked by a series of vehicles passing alongside the stone walls, some carting rubble and others migrant workers, depending on the time of day.

With virtually non-existent public transportation and a grid of highways outnumbering sidewalks, it hasn’t been easy to wander neighborhoods and explore at whim. Many streets don’t display signs, souks are girdled by six-lane roads and one is always wary of impatient drivers going off-road to zoom madly on the sand. At night, a lattice of streetlamps and cranes light up the city like a mythical airplane hangar. In addition to universities and condominiums, underway are a 250-meter-long Sidra tree made of steel and a 12-kilometer undersea tunnel traversing Corniche Bay. The sheer metallization against a backdrop of dunes and dust clouds is unsettling: one part whimsy and two parts awe.

Still others view the city as a transit hub, a sort of Grand Central of the Gulf. A staffer at Northwestern University Qatar says it’s difficult to get close to anyone because conventional stays are brief, marked by the end of a two or three-year visa. The only veteran of Doha’s Stone Age (think 15 years back) I’ve met is a Nepali taxi driver named Man Sing, a self-described villain who sports a wiry beard protruding at a 90-degree angle. You get used to characters in Doha.

I’m more than 7,100 miles away from Evanston. I live alone in one of thousands of apartments in a cosmopolis rising out of the sand. At work, I attempt to divine what’s on the forefront of a nation I just arrived in, and most of the time, I only have faint ideas of where I am. There is always a different response when people ask me why I’m here, perhaps because I haven’t completely figured out Doha or calculated the way it fits into my grand plans. For now, it feels good to wonder.