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Gregg Ramshaw’s Dispatches from Qatar: March 14

BY Gregg Ramshaw  March 14, 2003 at 3:58 PM EDT

Friday is a day of solemn repose in this Muslim country. Little moved on the streets during the morning and early afternoon. The NewsHour crew went to a neighboring hotel where three members of the U.S. military, dressed in civilian clothes, had the unenviable task of issuing credentials to journalists.

It’s a process that quickly turns amiable reporters surly, especially when their credentials cannot be issued, usually because of some bureaucratic snafu. 

A U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant named Leticia Reyes — whom a colleague described as a “mean green Marine” –startled the assembled journalists by announcing that credentials to cover the military’s Central Command based here would not be issued unless each of us first had media credentials issued by the Qatari government. 

The Americans were predictably indignant: We couldn’t get our own government’s authorization without first being recognized by a foreign government? The young lieutenant saw she had a mutiny brewing and quickly put it down. She listened to each plaintiff’s plea out of earshot of the others.

Some of the foreign press did have to get Qatari credentials first, but some of the Americans got credentials with the stern admonition to be sure to get Qatari press cards, too. 

Four o’clock Friday afternoon marked the end of the Sabbath and Doha’s city center came alive with shoppers, most of them men.

Many appeared to be expatriate Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos. They thronged into the maze of shops and stalls in the main souk, buying everything from cheap plastic sandals to live chickens. Some wrestled with oversized luggage, perhaps in preparation of a trip home. 

Regrettably, Doha’s souk gets low marks from guides like the Lonely Planet for having little in the way of local arts and crafts. Many of the products for sale there are cheap imports. 

The gold souk offers ornate jewelry priced according to the weight of the 22 karat gold. The cost of the workmanship hardly registers in the price, according to the locals. A necklace gets tossed on a scale and the price is quickly calculated based on the market price of gold. 

In the upscale jewelry stores in the souk, one saw veiled women in their solemn black abayas and their husbands in simple white cotton robes admiring and buying the most ostentatious necklace, bracelet, and earring sets — worn and admired only in the privacy of one’s home or family surroundings.

There was the same study in contrasts at the modern shopping mall where a shop selling abayas is across the hall from a Victoria’s Secret-like lingerie store. Both seemed to be doing a brisk business. 

Friday night as we drove through Doha we were stunned to hear what sounded like incoming artillery — fast and furiously — the kind of sounds that almost take your breath away.

Then we saw the familiar spray of sparkling luminescence and realized it was a fireworks display marking the conclusion of the Qatar Cultural Festival. We presumed the fireworks had been cleared well in advance with the U.S. Military command here, lest the cheering citizens of Doha became the unwitting targets of a retaliatory air strike from the fighter wing at the al Udeid air force base not far from here. 

“Not to worry,” said a hotel employee later. “Fireworks are very popular in Qatar.”