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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Qatar, land of sand - and chocolates?

Scanning through the news items late at night, a headline caught my eye:

Qatar: Land of Sand and Chocolate.

Yep, Qatar, not Belgium. I have never heard of chocolates being made in Qatar, but the thought of an undiscovered chocolate factory quickly got me clicking through.

The result was one of the most sycophantic pieces of travel writing I have seen in a decent publication (The Telegraph). After the first paragraph, where the writer assures her mother that Qatar is "perfectly safe - it's just like Dubai" barely a sentence goes by without ecstatic words bouncing out of them: seductive, rainbow, beautiful, sumptuous, fortified, relaxed...

Now, I don't want to sound bitter here. The writing was excellent: the control of the pace and the evocation of images was better than anything I could do - in fact by the time I was half way through I was dying to go to Qatar, which is pretty impressive considering the fact I'm already here.

Nor do I want to bash Qatar. There are many great things about Qatar. Of course, as with any country there are also many bad things about Qatar. And that's what gets me with this piece - there is no balance.

It's true that Souq Waqif is great, and the driving to the Inland Sea is exciting, and that Qatar is home to Al Jazeera, which (unmentioned) is often the only trusted source of news in many Arabic countries.

But what about the smelly bachelors banned from entering the malls, or the debt ridden labourers trapped in the country, or the air pollution causing numerous allergies amongst the population? Or does this go unoticed when lying in a 'Frette-sheeted bed' in a 'marvellously rococo Ritz-Carlton hotel' just after enjoying a ' bath pre-filled with tropical flower petals'?

If you only ever dwell on the good side of things, and ignore the negative things, you would eventually lose the trust of your readers. People know that there is always a negative side to things. Sycophantic writing is expected in adverts - I scanned the page for the words "This is an advertisement" but they were nowhere to be found - but not in true travel writing. Which, of course, this isn't.

As could be expected, the article drew a few comments on Qatar Living: the words rose coloured spectacles entered the fray a few times.

However, I don't think the writer was wearing spectacles at all, or any spectacles for that matter - not after reading this section, written about the morning after arriving at the Ritz Carlton hotel:

The next morning I was excited to see what lay outside. Pulling back the curtains I wasn’t sure what to expect. The result was a surprise. Pure, yellow desert and sandy nothingness. For miles. Land, seemingly meeting the sky. It was beautiful in its starkness.

Hang on - miles of pure yellow desert? At the Ritz Carlton? I know the grounds of the hotel itself are lovely, but where are the half constructed buildings, the canals under construction or the scub land beyond the grounds of the hotel. I don't think she was wearing spectacles, because I don't think she was ever here at all.

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