A city built over the last few decades, Doha sparkles with all the accoutrements of a modern metropolis. The towers and turrets of glass and chrome scraping the skies, the meandering souks with cafes and pavement shops and plush mirrored courtyards offering mezzes and divine meat platters: there is much that pleases the eye and palette!
Oil-rich Qatar has constructively enriched its waterfronts and land-spaces with beautifully curated museums and the very special QNL - our host - for the inaugural edition of the globally-acclaimed JLF – a festival celebrating literature - JLF Doha .
Qatar has determinedly pushed its traditional society toward globalisation. In its quest to be perceived as “a forum for independent thought in the Middle East” American universities, including North Western, Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Georgetown, were invited to locate overseas branches in the multi-billion-dollar-campus called Education City. These schools operate with their own faculty and administrators, with complete academic freedom, and under their own university standards. And despite the fact that most students are not citizens of Qatar, these universities are fully and generously financed by their host. Many among our discerning audience were students from across these universities
It was our privilege to bring to Doha a prime selection of conversations and dialogues by stellar speakers from across the globe. Curated by Festival Directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, JLF Doha was ably supported by the Qatar National Library, the Qatar Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ooredoo to bring literature to the forefront as a platform for sharing knowledge and experiences across subjects as diverse as cuisine, geology & environment, art, history, films, fiction, poetry, and drama. Tempered with curated music performances in the mornings, the two-day festival of ideas was keenly welcomed by our Qatari friends as they came in large numbers to attend and engage with speakers and performers in the luxurious and layered spaces of the Qatar National Library.
Our guest speakers were carefully selected from across nations to engage in a feast of ideas and conversations, sharing ‘each other’s stories’. In our desire to connect with the heart of Qatar, we organised visits to select areas of interest including the National Museum of Qatar which ‘emerges from a desert that has ventured all the way to the sea’. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it makes a dramatic addition to the Doha landscape; with its curved disks, intersections, and cantilevered angles — all inspired by the local desert rose. We were able to see the humble wooden dhows and more specially, the over -1.5 million Gulf pearls hand-embroidered on the renowned Pearl Carpet of Baroda. A film by Mira Nair (Nafas/’Breathe’), was presented on two facing screens, immersing viewers in the physical and emotional hardships of pearling and a testament to the role of the pearling industry, which for many years, was Qatar’s main link with the world and India.
To sample Arabic delicacies from across Syria and the Levant, Souq Waqif, the oldest marketplace in Doha dating back at least a hundred years, was a delight. We spent the waning hours of the evenings within the cobbled streets queuing up for hot kebabs and breads or indulging in an amazing Iranian feast at the opulent Parisa restaurant with Majboos, Harees, Kousa Mahshi, Mathrooba to spice up our evenings .The souk had on display spices and seasonal delicacies such as fresh dates and nuts and much more . It was renovated in 2006 to conserve its traditional Qatari architectural style. We spent many hours during our brief visit walking the rambling alleys with full-fledged aviaries of birds, rabbits and other fauna.
While criticism of the ruling family is not tolerated, there is an environment of open debate as well as of religious tolerance in Qatar. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and keen interest of participants and speakers alike! JLF DOHA is the first such international literature gathering in Qatar and it can only grow bigger into a vital stage for debate and dialogue within the region.
Our deepest gratitude to QNL Executive Director Sohair Wastawi and her amazing team including Sayeed Showkath and Kelly.