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Two summers ago I took my daughter on a roots trip to Kenya, where she was born. I researched the cheapest flights and found that Qatar, a small but wealthy emirate on the Arabian Peninsula, is vying to turn its expanding airport into a high-volume hub. The Middle East has always been a global crossroads, and these days it’s probably cheaper to refuel in countries on the Arabian Peninsula than in other parts of the world.
Qatar Airways was undercutting the other airlines. But, the travel agent I was working with added apologetically, a flight from New York to Nairobi would necessitate an overnight stay in both directions. Darn! By way of consolation, she added, the airline would pay for a visa, transportation into Doha, dinner, a hotel room, breakfast and transportation back to the airport. Well, oookaaay. I pulled out my credit card on the spot.
Doha is the third Arab city I’ve had the opportunity to explore. I’ve walked its streets twice now, but never during daylight. The Royal Qatar Hotel had a tasty Middle Eastern buffet waiting for us. My daughter was most impressed by the Internet jack in her private, albeit small, room and opted to stay in to scour Facebook while I roamed.
I didn’t know much about Doha other than that it’s home to the satellite news network al-Jazeera. One of the stereotypes I carry around about cities in Muslim countries is that they’re generally very safe. The clerk at the front desk laughed when I asked whether I should be concerned about taking a stroll. The Royal Qatar Hotel, which is circular and about 12 stories high, is the tallest structure in its vicinity, so I could range widely without getting lost. I carried a photocopy of my passport and, since the airline had taken care of all my needs, I didn’t need local currency. As in Madrid, my camera was snapping most of the way.
The store windows included one with a forlorn-looking model of a 10-tier wedding cake. It was a bakery away from the higher-volume foot traffic. I happened upon an ornamental arch over a busy boulevard that consisted of two swords meeting tip to tip high overhead, fused by the circular State of Qatar logo, which features a sailboat and a pair of palm trees.
From there I was drawn to a brightly lit spire that looks like a snail gracefully coiled around a minaret reaching for the heavens. I learned later that this is a cultural center dedicated to informing non-Muslims about Islam. I passed a small park with swaths of grass, streetlights and an open stone plaza. It was full of well-dressed young people, some holding hands in understated gestures of courtship.