The Pearl in Qatar

Qatar doesn't have elections, but like the United Nations, we're letting them in anyway. Artiste extraordinaire, general wit and occasional deep thinker Jack Cole reports to us from the capital, Doha, where he and his acting troupe, Dumbshow, performed a dramatisation of John Steinbeck's tale.


"In the town they tell the story of the great pearl, how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Joanna, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man's mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people's hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere" The Pearl, John Steinbeck


Forgive me for opening with such a self-indulgent quote - I am sure I could have found something far more pithy, but the pith has gone right out of me. The Pearl is a folk tale, and as befitting all orally told stories it isn't binary or polemic - instead, a little like a canoe, it bobs on the tide, swaying with the currents that swoon and wrestle beneath it. So when Steinbeck attests to The Pearl's simple motifs he is being more than a little ironic, in fact he is talking a big old pile of camel sh*t. In actual fact The Pearl is about EVERYTHING in between; as soon as you think you have the story in your hands, like sand in the desert it forms a new dune of meaning beyond your grasp. And so it was with my trip to Qatar.


There have been many 'almost but not quite' opportunities to tour Dumbshow's work internationally. So when a potential trip to Qatar was on the cards I think we all took it with a pinch of sea salt. However, as the date grew closer and details clearer, this mirage didn't look like it would disappear like all the others. This was a mirage in the desert of the real (semi-useful/useless Zizek reference)


Doha (the capital of Qatar) has never been top of my 'oh my god I must go there before I die' list, indeed it never even made it onto my 'oh my god if I had a million years to explore the world I would go here' list. But suddenly we were going there, to the richest country in the world per capita, with a play about the value of things (there was a special offer on prescience in duty free). Some friends raised eye brows, 'leave your morals in customs and enjoy the guaranteed sunshine', others looked at me as though my soul were melting into an oily sticky oozing puddle of tar. Somewhere in between was me, and like in The Pearl it is hard to pin down anything concrete about my experience (although there was indeed a lot of concrete in Qatar - concrete and sand in a searing hot par de deux), but by god/allah I shall try.


The Doha sky line is impressive - no two buildings are allowed to look the same which gives rise to some pretty strange high rises. It looks as if architects had got into a room with a limitless supply of mescaline and played picture consequences. One such building is reminiscent of an erect penis and even glows pink at night, another zig-zags up into the dusty ether, with uninsurable malice. All along the sea-front old pearl fisher 'dhoa' boats huddle together as a reminder of the city's gritty roots, and the traffic solidifies rock hard for hours at a time. I'd say about 30% of the city is 'finished' - everything else is a free-for-all-cum-building-site. Wherever you are, the constant sound of banging and drilling creates a sense of mass collective tinnitus, so that rare moments of silence become quietly disconcerting.


At the airport we were met by Bashir, our lovely driver for the week. Bashir was from India, and he is one of nearly 1.2 million migrant workers in Doha who mainly come from India and other parts of south east Asia - this is staggering considering the total population of Qatar is only 2.3 million. 94% of the labour force is made up of migrants, who work 7 days a week, 16+ hour shifts, living 5 to a room on as little as 45p an hour - and this all happens in the richest country in the world. A country so rich that each Qattari (pronounced cattery, as in a home for cats) receives the equivalent of somewhere in the region of £32,000 a year from birth for life. And herein lies the problem. I jumped from judgement to judgement, tut tutting with increasing spittle as my enlightened soul cast shadows upon its own ignorance.


100 years ago Qatar was in the midst of abject poverty, the booming pearl trade bottomed out when cultured alternatives were produced in China, but then it struck oil, lots of it. The last century or so it has been the ventricle artery of the capitalist ideal, transfusing black gold into a haemophilia afflicted market. And now it seeks to join the very world it has helped to create - it wants world cups, and world class museums, and British schools, and round-a-bouts and great amphitheatres and sky scrapers, and a lower working class to do everything while the super-rich can smoke shisha and count beads and drive enormous cars in the middle of the road. But it isn't so far from home, and the Qattaris are only modelling themselves on us, our great dream of a divided society, institutionalised racism, greed and patriarchy.


The Grand Hyatt hotel was beautiful, there is no other word for it, we had our own private villa and private beach with a private papa smurf blue lagoon overlooking a beautiful .... building site. There seemed to be more staff than guests, sometimes 6 or 7 gardeners would be sat by our villa extracting tiny weeds with the concentration of a heart surgeon. But, so we were told, they get a lot more money than they would if they were back home in their own country, in lots of ways Qatar is helping them. This was interspersed with other nuggets such as 'this is Qatar's time' and 'there is no right or wrong here, life is a race'. The question is, what is Qatar racing toward? We come back to this mirage again - Kino saw it in the nacre of his pearl, at first opportunities for his family, then a rifle, and finally a blank dull heavy stone. Qatar is looking into its own pearl, and where it now sees great visions of opulence and misguided western ideals I fear it will soon only see abandoned compounds and derelict fantasies - for the great 6000-seater amphitheatre is empty, the private beaches destitute, the perfect lagoons sanguine and lonely.


We had an extraordinary time, and were incredibly lucky to go, I am very grateful for the generosity of everyone who gave us this once in a lifetime opportunity, but it was all summed up for me on leaving. We drove past a new state of the art maternity hospital. Outside were some sculptures gifted by China representing the development of a foetus, but they had been covered up with bin liners because they were deemed offensive. As the bin liners flickered in the wind I saw a country desperately wanting something that they did not in the end really want at all, and in that way Kino and Qatar are very alike. Since being back everyone has asked what Qatar was like and all I can think of to say is that it was strange, very very strange, but mirages are strange aren't they - they represent what you think you want but which in actual fact could never exist.

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