In Doha

Marina Warner

The Museum of Islamic art is closed on Tuesdays, the taxi driver tells us. En route to the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Jacqueline Rose and I, soon to be joined by Andrew O’Hagan, have stopped for the night in Doha for this collection, to see the medieval lamps, the carpets, the emeralds, the Kaaba curtains, the manuscripts of the Quran, the maps of the world – maybe the map of Qatar when it was a pearl fishing port and an infamous haven for pirates. After all my browsing on the museum’s site, how could I have missed the opening times? We resolve to find a way: personnel must be on duty even during closing hours. Guards present. Temperature controls purring. Lighting on to protect against stealthy intruders. We email and text anyone who might have an entrée. I am a little embarrassed.

While we wait and see, we set out for the Sheikh Faisal collection, a private house which the brother of the recently retired emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has opened to the public. Twenty minutes away, the hotel receptionist says.

Mosques face towards Mecca and in a desert landscape they give bearings like very little else in the sand-laden haze, under the white-out sky, with dust devils spiralling and the flat, circular, bone-white scoop of the land a kind of colossal satellite dish, like the thousands that are stretching their ears from the roofs of the gated villas, the construction workers’ shelters, and the dorms scattered here and there.

On either side of the road, the construction sprawls, littered with cones and barriers, following no grid or other discernible plan. The workers’ heads are wrapped in scarves under their hard hats, they are wearing sunglasses, against the wind and the heat: hairdryer on maximum, a fan oven blowing at 250 degrees. Even at night the wind is still hot and dry. The builders are moving slowly. How can the titanic work ever be done? In these conditions? The Qatar Highway, with elaborate interchanges and bypasses, is under way, the sun-faded engineers’ plans on billboards tell us; the palisade of the Qatar Foundation stretches on and on: ‘Achieve Think Explore Create Reflect Inspire’ exhorts the inscription in English and in Arabic over and over again for miles and miles.

We go round a roundabout: ‘Realize’ in huge, sculpted, yellow, sans serif, Warholian letters. The palisade goes on and on. Inside, building has begun for institutions, laboratories, libraries, museums: Sheikha Moza, the mother of the new emir, has planned this. A department summoned from a university here, another from another there, this medical centre from one country, that from another. (UCL is opening an archaeology and anthropology centre.) World architects compete with plans: a cascade of fans doodled by Jean Nouvel, an accordion-pleated hermit crab, an Alessi peppermill, a switchback double Z on its side, a cheese twist, an Edmund de Waal cylinder pot, a ziggurat… A ziggurat, oh, that gives a pang, because that is the shape that I.M. Pei echoed in his design for the Museum of Islamic Art. So far nobody has given an answering tug on the strings we’ve been pulling.

Twenty minutes have long past, and we are still driving through the bleached, boulder and cone-strewn construction site. The infrastructure has to go down first: water pipes from the desalination plants; close-set, spindly electricity pylons; roads. Here and there a palm grove: water. Knots of workers gather at standpipes, each in a makeshift shelter sometimes marked with a flag.

The driver, Nasser, has never been to the Sheikh Faisal museum before and the road is not exactly sign-posted. Nasser has worked in Qatar for ten years; he goes home to Kerala for two months every other year. The migrants who make up 80 per cent of the population are not allowed to have families with them. A quarter are from the subcontinent; many of the Indian women are nurses. Other women – receptionists, cleaners – are from the Philippines. The construction workers come chiefly from Nepal and Bangladesh. Their wages are $120 a month, some healthcare and accommodation included. We see an advertisement for one of the blocks; it is for sale – 26 rooms, 15 bathrooms.

We have now been driving an hour. Does this huge white SUV (all cars in Doha are huge, white, high off the ground, snouty) have enough petrol? How long would one last on the road if broken down? If lost?

We turn in through a scrappy oasis: in the shallow standing water at the date palms’ roots, a hoopoe flutters off, showing a coquettish flare of white tail and wing-feathers; peacocks are sipping: signs of princely residence nearby. The ripening bunches of fruit are bagged on the trees: a farm. The workers’ hovels have satellite dishes, debris littering their yards, washing hanging out to dry – in a matter of minutes, I imagine. We stop to ask the way.

Now some ostriches, sheltering under a screen of rushes; then another paddock, where dainty oryxes are pointing their hooves and horns like dancers – the emir is helping revive the fauna of the desert and the oryx, with its long slender horns like a surveyor’s dividers, is Qatar’s national symbol. What do they eat? Nothing to graze here. There don’t even seem to be insects – but maybe out on the construction sites, in the camps… In this heat, there must be scorpions.

We catch sight of the palace of Sheikh Faisal: it’s four square, blonde stone, massy, castellated, like Crac des Chevaliers but smaller and brand new, as if Crac had been raised in replica for a world fair, with a raised pool outside in which a pirate ship is floating: Neverland! Impossible to get our bearings, as each wall has a huge gate. Eventually we drive up to the one that’s open, and get out.

Inside, no guards, a few cleaners. They smile and wave us in – into vast high galleries, solid masonry against the light and the heat, one after another, stretching on and on, filled – but ‘filled’ is not strong enough to convey this amassment, this hoard, this accumulation from India, Persia, Algeria, Indonesia – rugs and carpets, carved doors, thresholds and lintels, shutters, punkahs, daggers, rifles, bolts, locks and keys, bowls, stoves, pans, tools, wagons, musical instruments, every kind of furniture, ornaments, dresses, textiles, pictures, photographs, cars, bicycles, a prewar ambulance, some stamps, a few books. The collections unfurl, cadenced in their vitrines, enfiladed through all four wings of the castle-palace, with a basement beyond and another extension beyond that, which is packed with more, with vintage cars, and even an aeroplane. The floors are shiny but the sand has silted here and there on the exhibits that are trickier to dust – the cleaners are at work with their floor cloths and whisks, but the desert still blows in though the thickness of the fortress walls.

We have women in mind, looking out for their traces. A Bedouin stands tall next to her husband in an early 20th century photo; both of them marvellously accoutred, in embroidered garments, jewels; she is bold-faced, strong, she is Budur, ready to govern a country. There is a ninth-century chest, dark wood, dark green beads, a feminine box for keeping private, treasured things. There are some other tableaux – a mule train with a litter for the Hajj, another with camels hitched. We pause in a small mise-en-scène of the women’s quarters, with a dolls’ house school where a fully veiled teacher faces three pupils cross-legged, learning to read.

There is nobody here now except us, and the collector’s presence and personality are shadowy. It’s estranging and uncanny, because we are accustomed to expert, curated storytelling and here, the story being told about Qatari culture’s connections to Muslim heritage, in India, Indonesia, Persia, North Africa, has a poignant profligacy, like a lover who showers gifts on the object of desire, and finds it still elusive. Does a brand new world in the making need a past beyond the light prints of the pearl fishers and the pirates? Qatar is being written onto a wide, deep map. Like Fusun, the beloved phantom in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, Qatar is conjured up by Sheikh Faisal through objects – hundreds of thousands of them.

I find Andrew near one of the three-piece suites in teak and mother of pearl, mahogany and ivory, from the Moghul era, or from the Maharajahs’ and the nabobs’ , and we try to nail down the museum's peculiar atmosphere, its eeriness, its pathos: ‘It’s like a yard sale,’ he says.

In one vitrine, I come across a flyer for The Wizard of Oz, special edition, printed on tin. It’s displayed along with Bedouin children’s clothes, girls’ as well as boys. It’s inscribed: ‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ The juxtaposition is mysterious and witty: little girls in different worlds. That’s right, this is Qatar, and Doha is an Emerald City exploding on the skyline, in spars and shards, sci-fi artifice, realised. Will the Wizard be a villain? Will he be a sham?

Our contacts have replied: regrets... nothing doing. The beautiful, stylish, international, curated Museum of Islamic Culture will have to wait for another time.