Go east, young man: A photographic journey
In 2005 I was invited to Qatar and was asked if I would head up the liberalisation of the telecoms market. Even though I am not a great fan of very warm weather, I accepted the challenge and thus I spent about five years doing that task in Qatar.
I visited other countries in the region while I was working in Qatar and I intend to do a series of articles for Macfilos showing the photos I still have from those countries, as well as Qatar itself. Some photos have gone missing for various reasons. This is a ‘taster’ for those articles, set out in the sequence of our visits with a couple of photos from each location. The articles will appear in the same sequence.
The photo at the top of this article was taken in a souq in my first week in Qatar. Try as I might, I could never get one as good as this in the souq again. I feel that I must have lost my sense of wonder as what had seemed exotic at first became commonplace. I call this one ‘The Barrowman of Souq Waqif’. The barrowman brings items, bought in the souq, to your car for a small fee. When he is not doing that, he sits in the barrow relaxing on the soft sack lining. This photo contains so many different elements that it summarises the Middle East for me.
Qatar is a small country, but is also one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. It has many towering skyscrapers, but you cannot avoid the Gulf and the desert while you are there.
An essential trip is to go into the Gulf on a traditional Arab dhow, particularly in the evening when the sun is starting to go down
Trips into the desert do not take that long, as most of the country is desert. The Bedouin often allow their camels to roam around. I came across this one on a trip to the desert with a South African friend. I was not able to drive at the time as I was recovering from an eye operation, but I was in the front passenger seat as my South African friend drove off the road around this fellow who would not move. He and his kind had been there long before cars and jeeps, of course. That is why I call this photo ‘Timeless’.
The first country that we visited from Qatar was Oman. Oman is a much larger country than Qatar and it has spectacular mountains as well as deserts and even some green areas, but the population density is quite low. The Omani people are very friendly and their culture is quite different in a number of respects to that of other nations in the region. There are people in Oman who can trace their roots back to Africa. If I were asked to name one country in the region to visit, Oman would be my first choice.
This chap was our driver in Oman. His name is Essa (can also be Issa), pronounced ‘E-sah’, which translates as ‘Jesus’. Interestingly, Iosa is the word in the Irish language for ‘Jesus’, pronounced more or less the same way.
The coast of Oman is spectacular and we took a boat trip on which we saw many sights like this.
I visited the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on a number of occasions, largely for business reasons, but also for leisure, such as two trips to the Grand Prix in Bahrain. The countries are similar in many ways to Qatar and are quite familiar to many people in Europe and elsewhere, so I won’t do an article on either country.
We visited Jordan with a group from the Qatar Natural History Group. We travelled around quite a bit from Gadara (now Umm Qais) in the north, near to the Golan Heights, to Wadi Rum in the south.
Jordan is like Syria in appearance, but it seems to have escaped the internal difficulties and differences that have affected its neighbour. It is not nearly as wealthy as any of the Gulf States.
The two highlights in Jordan, for me, were Petra and Wadi Rum. This is the classic view of the Treasury in Petra taken from the long narrow passageway or canyon called the Siq.
There was a lot more to Petra than the Treasury and the Siq. The Nabataeans, who built the place, are gone now, but the Bedouin are still there. I will try to show a broader perspective in my article.
This photo is from Wadi Rum. If it were not for the clothing of the tourists, this could have been recorded any time in the past few centuries. The location will, of course, be familiar to anyone who has seen the film Lawrence of Arabia.
And, yes, the sand really is that colour. I will provide other examples in the article.
Our next trip was to Turkey, which is in the broader Middle East region. It is an Islamic country and when we arrived Ramazan (the Turkish version of Ramadan) had ended and the souq had closed for Eid. This did not bother us too much as we had been in plenty of souqs in our time in the Middle East.
Some of my Turkey photos have gone missing, probably due to the theft of a laptop while returning from Qatar, but I have enough for an article.
This is the interior of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which changed hands between Christianity and Islam and contains symbols of both religions. It is now a secular museum.
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At the other end of the scale, here is the entrance to the Sultan’s Harem in the Topkapi Palace.
I also went on business trips from Qatar to Thailand and Hong Kong and took a few days to look around in both countries, but they do not represent a good fit with the Middle East. A trip which we took to India, to travel on the Palace on Wheels train in Rajasthan, seems to be a good fit, though.
Our train journey started and finished in Delhi. It took in Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Chittorgarh, Ranthambore National Park, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jodhpur. I knew a lot of Indian people in Doha and some of them were on my team. The country was a real eye opener, however, and we saw things there that we could not imagine before we went. India is a country (a sub-continent) that gives rise to a whole range of emotions.
Here are just two photos, which do not go near capturing what we saw.
Firstly, here is one of the Monkeys that had a free run on a sacred site in Chittorgarh. Their main sport was grabbing the garlands of flowers around the necks of visitors and eating them (the flowers and not the visitors). This one is having a feed of flowers while watching the setting sun.
The ruling class in India lived in great style in times past and the rajahs and their families were carried around on various devices, such as this palanquin, seen at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur
Our final Middle East trip was to Syria and this was already the subject of this article on Macfilos
Here are two photos from that trip to complete the picture, as it were.
Other countries that I wanted to visit in the region included Iran and Egypt, but we did not visit them for various reasons, mainly internal issues. We had really wanted to visit Iran in 2009, but riots broke out after an election, so we went to Syria instead.
The war in Iraq was ongoing while we were in Qatar and US fighter jets flew over our apartment every night at about the same time on night missions to Iraq. For us, Kuwait seemed to be too close to Iraq. I got many invites to Saudi Arabia, but, even though my opposite numbers in Saudi were most charming people, I did not have a real enthusiasm to go there, so I usually asked a Qatari member of staff to go on my behalf.
Finally, even before the war, Yemen seemed very remote, even from Qatar. A friend of mine has thousands of slides, which he took in Yemen about 40 years ago. They show a country, which is quite different to any other part of the Middle East. We keep talking about doing a big scanning exercise on the slides.
The cameras used for the photos in the articles were many and varied and included the Nikon D200, D2Xs, D3, D700, Fujifilm F10, Lumix LX3, G1, GH1 and the Leica M8. I won’t be making any comparisons. For me, the best camera is always the one you have with you.