Apart from the corniche – a long waterfront promenade – Doha is not very different from Riyadh. The same tall buildings touch the same dust-hazed sky. Endless rows of huge cranes twist and turn, like partners in a dance.
The day is hot and humid, but along the corniche the breeze is pleasant. My taxi driver jabs his finger energetically at my map. He shows me the corniche, the souk, and where I should meet him when I have had enough. His name is Shamsu and he is from Kerala. I tell him I come from Christchurch. “Ah,” he says, “Beautiful city. You have a cricket ground.” I think of the cathedral that we no longer have and the CBD, which has largely disappeared. I wonder if Lancaster Park is still the same. I suspect not. Satisfied with his direction giving, he drives off, casting me backward glances while simultaneously smiling and vigorously waving in the direction of the corniche. It makes me smile too.
The corniche is almost deserted. There’s just me, and some workers in bright yellow overalls picking up rubbish. Sun shining through the palm trees casts interesting shadows and, on the water, traditional fishing boats jostle for space against a high-rise backdrop.
I cross the road to the souk and walk down labyrinthine alleyways.
Goods tumble out of the small shops. Amber prayer beads hang in rows beside white Muslim prayer caps.
I see watches being fixed and traditional fishing baskets being made.
Hemp sacks full of spices have my mouth watering and tummy rumbling. Sandals lying untidily outside a doorway tell their own story. I check my watch.
Yes, noon prayers.
Through another shop window, I spy a large vat of bright orange liquid. A central mechanical paddle stirs rhythmically. The shop owner stands alongside and smiles. “Come and try some,” he motions. But Roald Dahl’s story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suddenly springs to mind and instead, I find myself imagining what might have happened to Augustus Gloop if he’d fallen into this vat of brightly coloured liquid.
Shamsu and I chat as he drives me back.When he finds I am living in Riyadh, he talks about its crazy drivers. Here, he says, there are rules and fines. 6,000 riyals (£1,000) for going through red lights and 1,000 riyals for not wearing seat belts. I agree that these are excellent rules, thinking of the driver who takes me to work each day and knowing how much he likes to zip through a red light if he thinks I’m not watching. We lapse into silence and I look out the window. There, again, the same tall buildings, the same cranes and the same slow dance.