Dispatches from Doha

Lisa Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum, recently visited Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar. Experience Doha, the capital city, through the reflections and images she sent back to us.

The Sights of Doha: March 2, 2012

Enjoy this series of stunning images from Lisa’s visit to Qatar, including pictures of Doha’s gleaming skyscrapers, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Islamic Art, a falcon shop and a view of Richard Serra’s new 78-foot steel sculpture.

Click here  for the slideshow.

Art, Culture, and the Spices of Doha: February 29, 2012

Yesterday was devoted to learning more about the history of Qatar and the plans for Doha. By 2015, the city will be transformed yet again. To think, in the 1930s this was a village devoted to pearling! Looking at the skyline it is hard to believe. The plan, however, is to make sure that those origins are embedded in the architectural language of the new city.

The design of Katara, the cultural village, blends many visual vocabularies from the region—including the unique woven ceilings once found in traditional Qatari houses— into one. There are tall pigeon “condominiums,” special twin towers where the birds live and perch; a mosque decorated in Persian-style tiles; and a majestic amphitheater overlooking the sea that one might have found in the ancient world. You emerge from winding alleys into open gathering spaces that have tent-like coverings to give respite from the heat.

By afternoon, Katara is full of families coming to the beach for a swim or to eat at one of the restaurants serving world cuisines: Lebanese, Indian, Italian, etc. There is even a Red Velvet Cupcakery! I did not expect to see a Louise Bourgeois spider in one courtyard or the opulent opera house with its sumptuous decor and royal seating box! This mixing of past and present, of Arab culture with that of the West, is one of the goals of the extraordinary Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, who has set the vision for so much of this development. It is humbling to think that this new city, with its forest of shining towers and signature architectural gestures by Jean Nouvel and many other notable artists, has evolved in just a few decades in a country that was for generations a Bedouin society.

The Arab Museum of Modern Art sits not far from the Education City. It is a state-of-the-art kunsthalle. The current exhibition, Saraab, is a newly commissioned body of work by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang that takes up the entire building. He has created an interrelated series of installations that link the history of his birthplace, Quanzhou, the starting point of the Silk Road, to Qatar and the Arabian Peninsula. Each gallery links references that tie the two cultures together: Arabian horses, camels, falconry, and the traditional robes worn by Muslim women encounter Chinese inventions such as white porcelain, gunpowder, and ink painting. The first gallery is a mist-filled room with a basin of water the color of the sea in Doha. Through the vaporous air, you begin to make out three boats. One is clearly Chinese, the others, old pearling boats from Qatar. The next room is one of his signature gunpowder works, this time a landscape in the form of a map of the Silk Road. One of the most dramatic galleries is a monumental work made of white porcelain. The surface is a complex relief of delicate flowers. Using gunpowder, Cai has written the word “fragile” in flowing Arabic calligraphy. Another floor has gunpowder works from the artist’s own collection and videos of his famous explosion pieces. Cai created these installations in collaboration with many local volunteers. One video documents this process and is a metaphor for the project’s intent, as Chinese and Qatari assistants work beside the artist to realize a monumental landscape that their cultures have traversed for centuries. This would be an ideal place for NU students to work as interns, and I will be talking to the museum about these potential opportunities.

We ended the day in the souk, Doha’s traditional market place. One of the most fascinating ongoing traditions here is the great love of falcons. Men in long white robes and traditional Arab headdress sit together drinking sweet, thick coffee with their birds perched on their arms. We visited shops where you can buy falcons and the accessories for training them. There was also a falcon hospital (!) devoted exclusively to their care.

Other highlights were the spice shops and textile merchants. Brilliantly hued hills of different types of pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and pistachios filled the air with their perfume, drawing you in from the dark crowded alleys. These were followed by shops selling cottons, silks, and yards of sequined fabrics. We are reminded of the riches of the Silk Road as we watch traders exchanging these once exotic wares.

When we returned to the hotel many of the participants gathered for drinks and dinner. The topic was, not surprisingly, journalism in the Middle East. In addition to Arab scholars and activists, participants are here from such U.S. institutions as New York University and George Washington University. Northwestern has convened an astonishing array of individuals, and we are all looking forward to our exchanges. I am hoping to meet some of our NU students in Qatar.


Doha at Dawn: Tuesday, February 28, 2012

As expected, with jet lag I woke up in Doha at dawn. It is the perfect light for watching the city come alive. I am on a spit of sand distant enough from downtown for it to emerge from the morning haze. It seems to be weightless, floating; its twinkling lights look like stars. It is as though the order of things has been inverted, and I am in the heavens.

Beneath my balcony on the 20th floor I am getting a superb view of the patterns of pavement and gardens below. They imitate traditional Islamic motifs, the kinds of intricate patterns one sees on mosque tiles or the lacelike carvings of facades. There is water everywhere. It has been channeled in and amongst the buildings, giving the eye a blue-green repose in the sea of sand.

I recall my first trip to Shanghai in 2002. I stayed in Pudong, the relatively new part of the city. Early in the morning I could hear the white noise of construction. There was activity everywhere as one concrete behemoth after another was rising around me. Here in Doha, where I am so high up, the ambient humming of concrete mixers and bulldozers is overtaken by the sweet voices of hundreds of birds. Their swirling choreography animates the terra-cotta brickwork and palm trees far below.

The historian in me cannot resist imagining ancient Egyptian monuments, fortresses, and palaces being constructed on the Nile thousands of years ago. Doha shares the magnitude of such ambition. Unlike Shanghai, however, its birth appears orderly. There is neither dust nor that pale yellow, metallic sky, that veil of smog that sticks in the lungs in China′s new cities. Doha′s air has a freshness. It seems newborn, anticipatory.

Buried beneath this place are the tracks of Bedouins. Their invisible paths once criss-crossed the desert. Each step was erased virtually the moment it made its faint imprint. There are no clay tablets, crumbling walls, or landmarks to tell their tales. Their history is written in grains of sand that can never be read. Doha has arisen from this vast landscape without any apparent narrative except the orientalist tales of colonial diarists. As such, Qatar, with its vast wealth, can afford to construct its story in the present. There is only here and now. I wonder if this seems liberating to its people.

As children, we create fictional cities with Legos and erector sets. Today, nations play at devising worlds at a scale our boundless young minds could never imagine. The vision is staggering and humbling. How does education fit into this vision? What is needed to prepare one for this rapidly evolving landscape? I am looking forward to learning when I visit Northwestern′s campus tomorrow.


Arrival: Monday, February 27, 2012

Landing in Doha was remarkable. From the air you first saw the desert and the Arabian Peninsula. As far as the eye could see there was nothing except the very, very occasional single light. The space seemed so empty and vast. Very austere and beautiful. The sun was just setting and the colors and shapes were like a vivid Helen Frankenthaler abstraction.

When Doha came into sight it was strange to realize that a new city had grown up over the past 25 years in this place that had once been nothing but silent sands and still waters. The architecture is beyond belief. Official buildings are inflected by the history of Middle Eastern architecture. One thinks of the Alhambra, the great Turkish mosques, the Sumerian ziggurats. We passed I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art, and it was set back, dramatically lit, serene. The Museum of Modern Arab Art was covered in ads for a project by Takashi Murakami, and I understand that his sculptures plus others by Louise Bourgeois and Richard Serra have been sited in the park between the two museums. Some of the most unusual buildings are hotels. The Sheraton is in the shape of a pyramid. The lighting effects on the buildings have real pizzaz!

As guests of the Qatar Foundation we are being treated to the legendary hospitality for which the Arab world is known. I am looking forward to a tour of the city tomorrow with the other participants. I will send pictures from our tour.


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