Sometimes, in a strange place, it’s the similarities that stand out. There are so many facets of my TEDx Summit experience that deserve separate posts, but I wanted to highlight a few commonalities between cities that struck me.
I tried to leave for Doha without expectations — open to all of the potential experiences and people I’d encounter. Still, a part of me was a tiny bit nervous to travel to the Middle East and convene with a bunch of community change agents under a dome that had literally red Xs all over it, if you know what I mean. I needn’t have given my safety much of a second thought.
From the moment we touched down in Qatar, the red carpet was rolled out for us TEDx-ers. Regardless of nationality or creed, we were hosted in a 5-star hotel and shown the sights of Doha, the capital city, with day trips to the less developed corners of the country bookmarking our workshop days.
Downtown Doha was a commotion of cranes, as the city builds out and up, thanks in large part to an influx of wealth from oil. The TED Prize theme is The City 2.0, so it was especially interesting to be hosted in a city that, as Alexander put it, is still writing its story.
I suppose if I had any expectations at all, it was to see lots of street vendors and the kind of scrappy transportation I’d seen in pictures from places like China. Instead, it was almost more like West Des Moines — lots of SUVs and roundabouts and chain stores from Europe and the U.S. Which isn’t to say there isn’t any culture. As the soccer stadiums and convention centers go up, Qatar’s leadership is making an effort to embrace modern design and architecture, and to create places for the arts.
Most of our events were at the Katara Cultural Village, where I squealed with delight to see a Louise Bourgeois Spider sculpture similar to the one we have in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the Western Gateway of Des Moines. There was a whole Bourgeois exhibit there!
The hotspot for nightlife (Qatar is a mostly dry country) is the Souq Waqif, which does feel a bit like a Disney-fied Middle Eastern Market. This was the spot to smoke shisha, eat chicken shawarma, share tea and soak in a sense of atmosphere with the city lights twinkling around.
If you want to drink, many of the fancier hotels have a liquor license. We had access to the club at the W hotel, although apparently we just missed Kanye West, who was supposedly in town to film a music video and/or check out the jaw-droppingly awesome Murakami Exhibit.
(I may have missed Kanye, but I did get to meet up with a long lost friend from college who’s been living and working in the region.)
Another great artistic connection came with the fabulous Museum of Islamic Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei. Our own Des Moines Art Center has a modern wing designed by the renowned architect, too! (The staff at our Art Center was kind enough to send me with a poster inscribed with a sweet note for the Doha museum directors, which I presented like a little art ambassador. I think they were confused/delighted by the gesture.) Explore the Museum yourself thanks to the Google Art Project: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/the-museum-of-islamic-art-qatar/museumview/
The MIA was extremely impressive and the well-curated, sleek space was a good foil to the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum, which was one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. It was massive, with collection upon collection opening up from room to room, so you’re looking at fossils and then clothes from the region and then weapons and art and cars and planes, all laid out with very little context. I think if there’s a Night at the Museum III, this would have to be the setting. We were all a bit snarky about it’s layout, but then I remembered some of my travels to small towns in Iowa where people would set up storefront displays of “primitives,” as the sweet and now departed museum owner Darwin Linn in Villisca used to call his antiques.
At night, we’d look out from our bus windows to see families strolling around Doha’s Corniche, a waterfront pedestrian walkway that reminded me of families doing the loop around Gray’s Lake. On the last day, we had lunch at a delightful modern pavillion along the water, which reminded me of the “Hub Spot” taking shape along the Principal Riverwalk here.
I met and heard people speak who were putting on TEDx events all over the world — everywhere from Birmingham, UK, to Baghdad, Iraq, to Brazil. But I also met a great group of people from the Midwest who were just as inspiring.
The last night, we were finally able to meet up with a woman named Ebaa who grew up and lives in Qatar, but who went to the University of Iowa with a friend of ours in Des Moines. She treated us to a feast at an Egyptian restaurant in Katara and we talked about places like Cedar Rapids between lively singalongs by a Fez-wearing band that was playing at tables. Finding connections like that was the perfect closing experience that underscored how small this world can be.
I enjoyed my trip to Doha; it made me realize how proud I am of Des Moines!