A tap on the shoulder comes from the Australian woman next to me, pointing out the window of our plane. "Look out there- it's your first view of the desert." I looked out onto crumpled sandpaper that was the Arab desert somewhere near Oman. My first introduction to the Middle East, 13 hours after leaving Melbourne and now just 75 minutes from touch down in Qatar.
We went over the basics- it's Ramadan, so no eating or drinking anywhere in public. But drink- you have to drink- it's 110 degrees at night in Qatar. Just drink in the bathrooms where no one can see you. NEVER take a photo of a woman. Eat with your right hand. Sit on your left to keep yourself from forgetting. I asked the Australian what it's like to live in Saudi Arabia, where she has lived the past fourteen years. She looked amused and paused for effect: "I can't drive, because I'm a woman. If my husband leaves the country for more than 10 days, he has to write the government and officially appoint a male guardian for me." I was entering a different world.
Qatar was desert. Ten minutes out of the airport with a tour guide and we hit where the sidewalk ends and sand begins. No more artificial towns surrounding oil refineries. Just sand. We jammed to Bob Marley and rolled around the dunes, past the border with Saudi Arabia and up to the salty Persian Gulf, 112 degrees outside and windy. He couldn't quite understand why someone would visit Qatar during Ramadan in July. "Too hot."
That night in Doha I met two different expats from Libya and Poland, both living under curfews in special compounds owned by their foreign employers, both having to "know someone" if they want to readily access alcohol. It sounded like boarding school but for twenty-something's.
In the city, old collided with the new. Vintage mosques on one side of the road, mirrored by Ferrari collector meet ups on the other. Skyscrapers sprouting up with no other functional purpose than to "look modern." Traditional markets flooded with Qataris breaking daily Ramadan fast, checking Twitter, smoking shisha. East meeting West.
On the street I feasted on lamb cooked in a claypot with a Polish expat before heading to the airport. Boarding my second straight redeye I felt a burst of adrenaline and an eagerness to expand on this tiny sample of life in the Middle East. In a weird way it was all so invigorating. If I felt any hesitation when arriving that morning, I shouldn't have. It was certainly a different world but an absolutely fascinating one.