The Golden Road

The Golden Road

The deathly silence of the minibus gliding along the pristine surface of one of Doha’s arterial roads, ruler-straight Roman road of modern-day emporers.  Blacked-out windows the sign that no slaves ride here.  Occasionally, a jovial slap on the thigh for the sleeping passenger in the front seat, Amit’s way of staving off the creeping solitude of cash-weary and computer-worn.  Eyes barely roll as another expensive cruiser steams past between the fast lane and the central barriers, with the ignorant confidence of some untold immunity.

Weaving between the rumbling trucks, corrugated hulks of refuse and rock, water occasionally dripping from rusting tankers driven by faceless brown arms, our spacewagon swings off the highway into the desert.  On through avenues of towering pylons, steel trees lining a dusty boulevard to an unknown purgatory.  Over the boulevard, a single bleached white hut with a single tree shading a water tank, offering cool and prayer.  Beyond this last outpost, bunded oil pipelines chase the horizon into the haze, imaginary canals where rocks are reeds and dust is all that floats.

Some miles further on, out of the haze, a city emerges – a district of identical portacabins four stories high, a clutter of buses parked askew between the rocks and debris hewn from the foundations.  Some nights, at dusk, it is framed by the aura of a deepening orange orb, the most unbroken of sunsets anyway in the world, across an unblemished sky and spirit-level horizon.

Beyond this nameless city, huge mounds in the desert.  Sometimes a row of trucks sits atop a ridge, an excavator’s crooked elbow silhouetted, as if ready to haul its hidden body back from greater depths.  In one place, a clear blue lake, an engineer’s mistake, an over-excavation exposing the high groundwater somehow irreverently laying bare nature’s determination for privacy in these parts.

And the city?  A road is being built in the desert. A vast road, a marvel of modern engineering and project management, where genius and innovation share the same breath of cock-up and mismanagement, in a land where only pipelines and pylons can bear to make their home. An army of engineers, some clever and CAD-savvy, some bossy and bullish, all literate and articulate, sit in air conditioned cabins, slaves to their screens and their deadlines.  Here, in these desert libraries, a good joke falls like a drop of rain in spring.

At the end of day, back in the spacewagons on the thundering truck route, our engineers will sneak a glance at the uncooled desert towers half a mile away, populated by workers from the furnaces of Sindh and Punjab, who have probably never lived in a cooled room. There is no public transport into town, no prospect of hitching a ride, no internet, the same meal every day.  Rumours abound of shootings on the tracks or riots in the camps. But are only rumours, for few know the locals and fewer know the camps.

For these men, and it is largely men, who live and work on construction sites in Qatar, there seems to be an unwritten rule of pride – they come to Qatar to earn their way in the world, and they ask no pity, want no pity, expect no pity.  Nor is Qatar a land they will come to know intimately – it is just a place, a land of mystery and money and madmen, ticket to a dream housed somewhere else.  For me – one day, when the dust has settled once more, maybe I will return to Qatar, and ride my bicycle by the great superhighway, a fool’s Golden Road, and smile, if only to myself, for those whose dreams chased us here.


Mirrors in the Sky

Mirrors in the Sky

Last week, in Dubai, the world watched as an eagle soared from top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, rising head and shoulders above the surrounding skyscrapers and pointing bold and razor sharp into the clouds, as if to puncture the sky above. The view from the eagle’s eye, seen by all who fly beneath the shining buttresses or stand on the giants’ shoulders, is truly spectacular. It begins with the emerald green sea, broken by the quiet specks of resting ships or the white arrowheads of forging tankers. Isolated oil rigs and terraced islands, half-eaten or half-baked, rise from the sea, excavators and graders crawling around their rippled leaves for the next bite. Weaving lazily beside the coastline, the last remnants of the desert shelf, with a flurry of speckled life clinging to the rocks, plunges away in long brush strokes of deep blue.

Sweeping inland over the sandy plains, and the eagle surveys a geometric marvel. A whole kingdom of carefully crafted spiders’ webs and reassuringly consistent grids, all connected by thick arteries and meticulously calculated curvature. All seems to be in balance, with no corner tangled or clamouring for breath – drawn from the sky as if the god who scribbled the Nazca lines had replaced his youthful art with a refinement of geometry, order and organisation.

When the eagle lands, the view is no worse. The great Burj itself rises from an artificial lake, where thousands of fountains dance an exotic choreography on so vast a scale as to obscure the sleeping tower cranes and the night sky behind. The Burj’s pointed spear surges upwards, with the surrounding skyscrapers following as boldly as they may, willing distant cities to follow their path, their glass mirrors daring to reflect the future.

Dubai pushes the boundaries. It is an engineering and architectural marvel – a glorious testament to the best on a vast scale, the brightest of minds collaborating to break through the limits of human achievement. Of course, it is not perfect – there have been failings – a lack of public transport and connectivity for walkers and cyclists is one example, contributing to an isolated and miserable existence for some – but even that seems to be increasingly addressed with a forceful will.

Sweet and golden under the Arabian sun, those in need of money swarm to Dubai, flies to a global honey pot. Many are labourers, taxi drivers, tea boys, attracted by recruitment agencies to the promise of quick wins. Many are qualified experts, engineers, teachers or doctors, whose salaries can frequently be twice as much as they might receive at home. Others are executives, drawn to the honey pot for a richer taste of profit and power.   Most have their reasons, some more pressing than others – but all start off hoping that a mouthful of honey will sweeten their lives.

But as flies have found since bees were born – honey can be sticky, hardened, even deadly. In Doha and Dubai, many find a bitter taste all too quickly. Rent is expensive, with few short-term contracts available, and employees are usually tied into long contracts, often with company loans to pay rental and living costs.   Maybe you can’t cross the road where you want, maybe you use pills to keep awake at the wheel of your truck or through the long days at the office, maybe you miss your family, maybe, if you are one of the lucky few who can get a visa for them, there is no-where for them to play, maybe you can’t afford to go out, or maybe you are too tired to do anything.

And if you want to fly away, you may find your feet stuck. You cannot legally leave until your debts are paid, nor until your company provides you permission to leave. I have met many trapped this way, from qualified Europeans to West African taxi drivers, lured by the promise of a $1000 each month that turns out to be 1000 dirhams ($270) minus accommodation and fees.

Dubai marina has everything that the eagle’s eye promised – a creekside promenade under the blue glass skyscrapers, packed with lively restaurants and palatial penthouses, and emerging onto a golden sand beach. One on end, in front of the gantries and cranes of the industrial dock, the jet skis flip and dance in the waves. In the middle, the sunbathers throw Islamic caution to the wind in pursuit of image, some showing off their tanned legs and gym-toned bodies, others for whom simply being present is sufficient. Further to the north lie the exclusive hotels and villas of Jumeirah, where there may be flies may be trapped in a different way – by the taste of their gold, modern day King Midases, rendered unable by their own greed to swallow to a more frugal and accountable existence in their home country.

Three thousand miles away, in the oil-rich forests of Eastern Congo, I read of the bullying, intimidation, and infighting amongst official and unoffical factions scrabbling in the dirt for their slice of the oil pie. The situation is complicated: “You, Europeans, you have eaten all your animals, and now you ask us to turn our backs on money the country desperately needs, the people desperately need, to protect animals?”. But somehow, in Congo, at least people know about the dirt, live with it, work with it. In Dubai and Doha, perhaps the dirt is swept under, washed away, ignored as everyone looks up to the future – I find myself wondering what colour the sky mirrors would turn if they chose to reflect a little more.

Sports Day

Sports Day

Picture the Champs Elysées in Paris in late July.  The crowds line the wide boulevard as far as the eye can see, and a long rainbow of helmets stretches round the corner under the vast shadows of the Arc de Triomphe.  Leaning into the curve at improbable angles, a speck or two shoot off in the crash barriers, sparks before the fire.  On the long straight, each rider straining to keep the wheel in front, and the peloton comes back together.  As one lap turns into another, this giant spear-headed fish starts to madden, fleeing an imaginary harpoon, flailing and fighting as the riders duck and dive for position.  On the final straight, fuelled by the explosion of noise from the crowd, it bursts into flame.  The sparks stand on their pedals and dart around for the right wind to follow – some fade into the flame, their work done, others may collide and fall, and those remaining hope to fly off into the stars.

This is the aspirational scenario for Doha Corniche, sun-drenched and sand-blown Champs-Elysées on the emerald sea, for the finale of the Tour of Qatar, hunting ground for the sprinting elite, and where the early blows are struck in the professional cycling season.

No-one prepared me for the silence.  As the peloton hauled its way up and down under the palm trees, barely a word was spoken. With each lap, the concentration on the riders’ faces and the strain in their muscles intensified as the spring wound up.  All I could hear was the whirr of the chainwheels and the rush of the wind, and a momentary silence rolling away down the road.

Nor, in Paris, would I be able to stand on the finish line, my camera lens thrust over the white paint on the tarmac, looking into the commentary box.  Walking around in my lycra shorts had made me feel like I was turning up to high tea in my underpants, and I was relieved when a few other cyclists began to lean their bicycles on the railings and shout into the road. The atmosphere gradually built, and the adrenalin began to flow – clearly it will take a while to reproduce the Champs Elysées here – but to witness a sprint finish at close quarters was as electrifying as I had hoped.

The Tour of Qatar is not the only sporting event happening in Qatar.  In fact, there are more than I can keep track of – there are global sailing, tennis, athletics, driving, handball competitions all happening in a short space of time: Qatar is now a prolific host of high-profile international sporting events, and a sought-after investor in sports teams and tournaments. Qatar’s recent National Sports Day was a public holiday, a traditional day of games and glory as ancient Olympians would have known.

Honouring the occasion at our site office in the desert, I consumed fries and a club sandwich at my desk and endeavoured to fill my coffee breaks with occasional nightmares about past school sports days.  Even the roads respected Sports Day, the only day I had seen them running free, as if playing themselves.  Clearly, if Qatar is serious about sport, health, and a more attractive urban environment for Doha, much deeper solutions are required, starting with the sort of long-term sacrifices many cities have made for public and non-motorised transport over private cars.

Racked with guilt from my no-show on National Sports Day, I was persuaded to go dragon boating.  I imagined that it would involve fire, flying, impenetrable scales, a close brush with death in treacherous waters, and a glorious redemption with a spear to the vulnerable underbelly as the dragon draws breath for his final onslaught.   Needless to say, it is in fact much like rowing, only simpler.

The process of learning a new skill, and possibly my Sports Day guilt, made me ask, why do we play sport?  Games are for children, right?  Riding the dragon’s back as I was, beating the poor creature through the water so inelegantly, I began to wonder how foolish I was.  However, as the dragon tired, I found myself returning to technicalities I was familiar with: discovering that the same metronome keeping a peloton riding inches from each others’ wheels also makes a longboat glide through the water.  Similarly, the same precise awareness and control of dynamics that a court player will use to strike the ball is useful to a rower placing a paddle.

Surely it is no coincidence that life and work are sometimes referred to as a game, for sport teaches us to know our body and mind – to gauge our limits and pace our efforts, to know false hunger and real hunger, to shrug off defeat, and to know how long and hard a skill is won.  And perhaps sport has lessons for society and economy as well – in a boat or in a peloton, everyone gets to the finish line quicker and enjoys it more if they pull together, look out for the weaker riders or rowers, take the time to support, educate and train them.

Still feeling like I was condemned to physical education purgatory for my Sports Day sleight, I turned up to a squash club, to find a former Egyptian national player training – he could have wiped the floor with me and still not have cleaned all the corners.  Instead he gave me a few tips and enthused about the game, and I stayed to watch his deft flicks and dancing feet, the time-old magic of observing a craftsman who had truly mastered his art.

Perhaps you think you’ve never been very good at sport. Perhaps you’re too busy or prefer other skills.  Maybe you’ve had a bad experience.  Sport is certainly not the only skill or art worth knowing, and most of us will never sprint down the Corniche or play squash for our country – but, like a car that seizes up when it is not used, our bodies are designed to be active, every day of our lives.  And there are more sports out there than most of us will ever have the chance to play, and more reasons to enjoy each one than we will ever know.  So go on, grow up: explore outdoors, learn something new, play a game.