Glimpsed through the doors in the partition screen that marks the border between the banqueting-slash-conference hall and the break out-networking, lobby-style area at the Radisson Blu, Doha, I see a dozen, large, round tables around which are seated many large round women in red jackets, listening to a speech. It’s Christmas, and clearly the Santa spirit may be behind this sartorial display, particularly as this is Christmas in the Gulf and so people tend to go a bit nostalgic.
Suddenly, the Filipina gentlewoman addressing the gathering ends her disquisition and there’s a hearty round of applause from the internationals. Meanwhile, out in the lobby/break-out area, on the acres of carpet, it is not only Christmas in the Gulf, but also salat az-zuhr, time for mid-day prayers. In a corner, three Muslims are on their hands and knees, one in a white thoub topped by a red and white chequered ghutra, while the others are in grimy work clothes, the local Keralan chic. They are on the floor down at one end of a long, white table clothed refreshment table, while up at the other end, the non-Muslims – a white chef and two Filipinas – stand oddly huddled together, as if trying to get out of the way of a speeding car and finding no way out except to stand right in each others’ personal space. They look round awkwardly as I go past, wondering, perhaps, if I will try to squeeze up with them in an equally desperate attempt to get out of the way of this awkwardly public display of religion.
I go on past though, out into the baking hot corridor that runs down the side of the building, then into the main hotel reception area. Waiting for the lift, I catch sight of an elderly white man, fawn jacket, tan slacks, travel bag in hand, embracing a younger, Western-dressed Arab guy. They hug passionately, stepping into each other almost, the fevered clasping like that of two lovers who cannot stand to be parted, one of them likely never to return. It is a moment of rare, odd emotion in the shiny lobby, where the bored doormen stand by the gargantuan glass frontage, and the shoe shiner gloomily muses on his distant Nepalese homeland.
The following day is Qatar National Day, and thus the entirely non-national female staff are all required to wear “Qatari national dress” – a Bedouin style garb of gold-embroidered blue and red djelabias, and a head-dress of gold coins. The Filipina girls in particular look very far from home. The hotel is also largely empty, except for a party of large, over-stuffed Saudis who appear mid-afternoon, whooping down the hallway.
At breakfast, the Filipino maître d’, Rony, explains he has not been back home for Christmas for 16 years. “Skype is a great thing, though,” he says. In Saudi, where he worked for five years, “you would put money in the slot of a phone and a meter would tick round faster than a taxi.” He remembers home – Coron – principally as being a good place to leave in order to get to Palawan; “There’s a fast ferry. Very nice. Only ever half full.”
Later, I pass through the same reception area, down the same baking hot corridor, and come once again to the doors of the conference/banqueting hall area. Yesterday’s gathering was indeed a Women’s Breakfast Club, as a slightly stranded looking sign now says, parked next to the entrance door.
I go through then suddenly am pulled up short; on the other side, everything has changed.
The partition separating the dining hall from the lobby has been ripped out, the carpet on which the devout were praying has been torn up, and the concrete floor underneath has been drilled into in several places, breaking it down into whatever lay beneath. What transpired here really only hours ago – the praying and the huddling and the speechifying and the Santa spirit and the good wishes and charitable deeds of the Women’s Breakfast Club, have all been completely erased.
Instead, there is the smell of dust and cement, the fawn stretchings and blank rock of the desert, the same sand and crushed aggregates of a million building sites all across Doha. I listen: in the background, there is the long, burring growl of generators, the steady, android beeps of reversing lorries, the rhythmic banging of metal hammers on wood, nailing together the moulds for the concrete of a thousand mixed-use complexes; a slap clanking of chain and pile driver.
And here before me now, in what was the conference hall, the drilled out concrete and mashed up pale brown rock looks like the desert exposed, revealed to lie just where it has always been – a moment beneath the surface of the five star, international hotel.