Part I. Dinner in Amman, Jordan
DH and I departed Vienna for Qatar for a day or so of sightseeing ahead of an honor orchestra performance that DD was participating in at the American School of Doha. Our flight connection was dreadful, and we found ourselves with a 6 hour layover in Amman before our 0230 transfer to Doha. Rather fortunately our carrier was Royal Jordanian Airlines, and they have recently begun offering passengers with long layovers a "Zuwar Dining" Experience (Zuwar means Visitor in Arabic). For the cost of a tourist visa, one is met at Passport Control by an official; our passports are stamped; and we are escorted to and from a restaurant in Amman to enjoy a dinner of traditional Jordanian foods. Fabulous marketing.
Dinner was at a restaurant inside a restored fortress atop one of the many hills in the city. In my research I had read that the restaurant was a top place to dine for both the setting and the food, a conclusion with which we both agreed.
One of the fortress rooms had been converted into the on-site pita bakery, and the aroma of pita baking was heavenly. I had also read that portion control is non-existent in Jordanian dining; and so DH and I tried to prepare ourselves with merely just a few bites of the meal on our flight from Vienna. Ha! We sat for dinner and the mezze appeared shortly, enough to feed all the Hashemites in the kingdom, and then some. All of our favorites, too: Fattoush, Baba Ganoush, Labaneh, Tabbouleh, Hummus, Moutabal and that delicious pita. We feasted.
All that feasting was just the warmup, as a plate of Kibbeh and Sigara Boregi, and a large bowl of savory-spiced something (eggplant or potatoes) appeared before us. We made short work of the savory Kibbeh and crispy Sigara, but barely made a dent in the savory-spiced something. Much to our surprise, though, dinner was not quite over! Two more plates appeared bearing kebabs from the mighty grill--one plate each of spicy lamb and succulent chicken. All those threats about starving children in China we heard from our parents as young children rang through our heads, and we gallantly ate every bite of our kebaps. Finally, nearly two hours later, light at the end of the tunnel! Our gluttonous shame all that we had remaining, we almost devoured the entire Muhalabiyyeh, a milk flan with pistachio and rose water.
Dinner finally complete, our driver returned us to the airport with a special letter indicating that we had been "invited" by Royal Jordanian Airlines to dine in Amman (to explain the short time on our tourist stamp). Passport Control gave us an odd look, and more importantly, the exit stamp. We slept for an hour or so in the RJ lounge before making our bleary-eyed connection; within moments of takeoff we were fast asleep, dreaming of having eaten like royalty in Jordan. Next stop, Doha.
Part II. The Souk
Doha’s Souk Waqif dates back several hundred years, and was the place for trade for Bedouin tribes. In 2006 the Qatari government launched a massive restoration effort, and the results are spectacular. The former princely palaces surrounding the market were also renovated to become a collection of boutique hotels, one of which we stayed at during our time in Doha.
Our arrival at 0630, on a Friday in a Muslim country, put us at a terrible disadvantage with respect to an early check-in at our hotel. I had contacted the hotel prior to inquire about an early check in, or even to add an extra day to our reservation, but the hotel was fully booked. Not only could we not check in before 1300, just about everything was closed, too. We wandered into the Souk to find something to eat, then took a long nap by the pool until we could finally access our hotel room. Not fun.
Once the market began to open in the late afternoon we were able to enjoy ourselves. The "modern" streets of the market are fresh and polished, and made for an architecturally delightful walk. The oldest part of the market is the shopping scene, with the vendors displaying everything a Qatari woman needs to prepare the home, from snacks to spices to silks to cashmere (oh yes, I purchased) to platters nearly large enough to serve a Jordanian dinner.
The Bird Souk was animated, but definitely not a place for diehard PETA members. Efforts are being made to bring this market up to higher standards, and that is a good thing. This being the dessert, there was of course, the Camel Souk. We missed the morning sales routine, alas, and we broke protocol by not bringing pita to toss to these smiling dromedaries being fawned over by small children and their parents. Next time.
Supplies and the like are delivered via wheelbarrows throughout the market, though on only one occasion did we see the delivery men actually delivering anything; most were sitting in the barrels conversing with one another. Sadly, all that remains in the market from the age of pearling, once a mainstay of trade now lost to oil, are cases of beautiful oyster shells. We had a lengthy conversation with an older Qatari gentleman who explained that all the pearls in his shop come from China. Toward evening we toured the Falcon Souk; like a schoolgirl, I was giddy to see these amazing birds of prey up close, and was jealous of a young boy learning to tie the helmet on his very own raptor. We had but one evening to enjoy the Souk (the other was reserved for the concert). From our restaurant atop a terrace during dinner we could spy couples, families with children, and, yes, the traditional harems enjoying the warm spring evening. It all seemed a world away from the heuriger evenings at home.
Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim al Thani, the late Qatari Emir (succeeded by his son, Sheikh Thamim bin al Thani) needed a place to display his 15.000 or so trinkets, so he constructed a massive fortress museum in the desert, about an hour outside of Doha. On the second day our driver happily took us to visit. One can make use of a personal guide in the museum, which we took advantage of until a rather annoying person joined us and kept asking stupid questions. We excused ourselves and wandered the rest of the museum on our own. Back in Doha we also visited the Museum of Islamic Arts, designed by I.M. Pei (to resemble a woman wearing a burqa, if you look closely). Both museums were rather enjoyable; and the MIA was exceptionally well curated, we thought, not to mention being an architectural feast for the eyes, as well.
Part III. The Food (Poisoning)
Our epicurean adventure into the Middle East ended as spectacularly as it began, but not at all in a good way. "Qatari Cuisine" does not really exist on its own; the cuisine draws from across the Middle East, with small variations here and there. We set our dining expectations accordingly for this trip.
At one place we snacked on Halloumi, with Z'aatar bread and the ubiquitous olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Dinner was something on the grill, most typically Kebap, with hummus and pita on the side. Breakfast at our hotel was by far the dining highlight in Doha, of Emirati Balaleet, Foul Moudammas, cheeses, salads and Western options.
So when and how did I fall to food poisoning (we suspect)? Whenever possible, I request one of the special meals when flying; the menu is usually more interesting than the "chicken or pasta" options. On our return flight I requested "Vegetarian," the primary reason being that airplane breakfasts are generally something sweet and unsubstantial, whereas the vegetarian option is almost always steamed vegetables and rice, a far more palatable way for me to start my day.
Indeed, my special breakfast meal from Doha to Amman was veggies and rice, and it tasted fine. During our short layover I began to feel, well, not so great. Once on board the plane, the next three hours and change were spent either curled up in a corner seat in the back row (thankfully the flight was not full), or in the lavatory that the Royal Jordanian crew had thoughtfully sequestered for me. The crew was extraordinarily kind and helpful throughout my ordeal; still, I hope I never again get to be one of those passengers who doesn't have to return my seat to the upright position for landing!
When we landed in Vienna, I put on my best fake smile at Immigration and then collapsed in the back of the car for the drive home. And here I thought I wasn't going to have an epicurean adventure!
Observations and Conclusions.
Doha has potential; hopefully the (massive!) efforts underway to prepare for the 2022 World Cup will boost tourist infrastructure. Of course, the city is not for the first-time traveler. Western commodities like pharmacies, groceries, WiFi, and the like are hard to find within the typical tourist places. There is no central taxi service; friends had advised us of the need for a private driver, which we appreciated. Doha is not for the xenophobic, either. I found myself staring, unintentionally, at the many styles of niqabs and burqas worn by women; some of them were exquisite. This was also the first time we had seen men with their multiple wives, and that took a little getting used to, as well.
Will we return to Doha? We were thrilled to be able to attend DD’s orchestra performance, and to sightsee a bit, but in the absence of a specific reason, I can not say that Doha will land on a travel wish list again.
Thank you for reading.
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Dinner in Amman and Sightseeing in Doha. A Whirlwind 36 Hour Holiday!
Part I. Dinner in Amman, Jordan