In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
My first weeks in Doha were about as pleasant and stress free as I could have hoped for. I lived with my family in an expat compound called Beverly Hills Gardens, a fifteen minute drive from the city’s commercial district. Row after symmetrical row of terracotta villas, it had everything young unemployed me could have possibly needed. There was a gym, saunas, squash courts, a small store selling American snacks and a gargantuan swimming pool complete with wooden bridge and an illuminated waterfall that came on in the evenings.
Then there was our villa, a massive space that comfortably housed my parents, brother, sister, dog and I, without ever feeling restrictive or cramped. It was the most luxurious home we’d ever had and in those first weeks I remember feeling like the guy who’d won the lottery as I lounged about the house thinking about what I was going to do with myself in Doha.
Whenever I felt the need to escape this suburban bubble, I’d grab a lift into town with my dad. Or hail one of the many orange-white taxis driven by English speaking Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. Stood at the entrance gates of what would become an unprecedented economic boom, I could literally see Doha developing before my eyes as I sped down the city’s shiny new roads. I’d watch as teams of construction workers toiled away on the skeletal frame of yet another five star hotel. In between the city’s limited collection of sights and residential areas sat wide, open expanses of dusty, unutilized land. Scores of Coming Soon billboards trumpeted the impending arrival of international fast food chains, while elsewhere an army of landscapers laid down a soft bed of lush-green for a new city park.
My first trips into Doha included lengthy investigations of Souq Waqif (The Iranian Souq), where many an hour flew by wandering through its spice shops, tailors and stalls of handmade crafts. When my legs tired I’d refuel at one of the many teahouses, or outside a favourite kebab restaurant.
There were also countless visits to Doha’s Corniche, a palm-fringed promenade that formed a seven kilometer horseshoe around a deep-blue bay. The uncompromising summer heat proved so aggressive it was virtually deserted in the afternoons. But in the mornings and evenings the whole area sprang into life with joggers, ambling couples and families picnicking in its manicured gardens. I always felt so peaceful there, a feeling I’d never had before in my entire life.
One evening, a long, people-watching promenade walk concluded with a few beers at The Sheraton Hotel, one of the few places an expat could consume alcohol. From there I flagged down a taxi home, which was when I first met Ashraf. ‘‘Welcome, where you go?’’ he asked, a baby-faced man with a gap-toothed smile and a Clark Gable mustache.
‘‘Beverly Hills Gardens’’ I replied, as he let off an impressed whistle, beating the steering wheel excitedly with his fists.
‘‘Wowee! … American yes?’’
‘‘Wowee! … Stinking rich yes?’’
On the drive back I learned that Ashraf was a 20 year old Pakistani from Karachi. He’d come to Qatar to seek his fortune, a plan that wasn’t working out quite as he’d hoped. ‘‘All I am wanting is beautiful wife and big family’’ he explained earnestly, his mustache twitching excitedly at the thought. ‘‘But first need money. No money… no beautiful for Ashraf’’.
Pulling up at my compound’s security gate, I gave the guard a familiar wave and the barrier lifted, allowing us through. Parking right outside my front door, Ashraf grinned, whipping a battered, food-stained business card out of his wallet. “Don’t forget me’’ he said, popping it into my hand. ‘‘You want go somewhere, call me. Anyplace, anytime… Ashraf come!’’.
His first assignment was an expedition to Doha Golf Club, an eighteen hole championship green that was one of the first grass golf courses ever built in The Middle East. I spent the morning caddying for a friend, who unlike myself could actually play. Meanwhile Ashraf napped in the car park until we were finished. ‘‘Golfing people have big money’’ he told me with a yawn, biting his lip thoughtfully. ‘‘For them beautiful is no problem’’.
A couple of times a week he ferried me over to City Center, Doha’s biggest and newest shopping mall. My dad was the general manager of X-Treme World Entertainment Centre, Winter Wonderland Ice Rink and Fun Waves Water Park. Needless to say Ashraf was in awe, the Rupees virtually flashing across his alert eyes like neon lights. ‘‘Wowee!’’.
Trips around the city with Ashraf were always entertaining. Like most people in Doha he drove like a maniac, window rolled down, music blaring out from a pile of tatty mixtapes. It was mostly unlistenable Asian pop, all hard dance beats and shrieking female vocals. But every now and then a surprise track popped up to break the monotony. It didn’t take long for me to identify the recurring theme. Pink Floyd’s Money, The Beatles’ version of Money (That’s What I Want), Abba’s Money Money Money and She Works Hard for the Money by Donna Summers. ‘‘Ah these famous!” he groaned with a frustrated shake of the head. “Song is true, is a rich man’s world… not a world for Ashraf’’.
It wasn’t long after that my trusty driver started to become tardy. Twenty minutes late one morning, thirty five the next. One day, on my way back from a morning of water sports in the bay, Ashraf claimed to have no change. So I ended up giving him double the fare, a difference I never recovered.
A few days later I had a lunch date with a Scottish girl I’d met on The Corniche. The plan was for Ashraf to come pick me up, then we’d shoot over to her place before heading on to the restaurant. She’d seemed impressed when I foolishly told her about ‘‘my driver’’. That day he kept me waiting for over an hour, ignoring my missed calls before finally showing up with some cock-and-bull-story involving a sick uncle. I did not get a second date.
The final nail in Ashraf’s coffin came when he woke me up in the middle of the night with a somewhat frantic phone call. ‘‘Mr. Leighton!!!” he cried, as I propped myself up in bed, blurry-eyed and confused. ‘‘Ashraf have BIG problem!!! Taxi engine finished… three thousand Riyals for new! Can you help?!?’’
By ‘‘help’’ of course he meant fund the entire thing, while ‘‘I pay you back’’ was exposed as a hare-brained scheme to refund me via free taxi rides. Even in my sleep-addled reasoning I understood that three thousand Riyals was equal to several hundred trips to City Center and back, with maybe a return leg to Saudi Arabia thrown in for good measure. Ashraf clearly wasn’t happy that I hadn’t stepped in to bail him out. A few days later he was due to take a friend and I to the cinema. For this appointment he didn’t show up at all, so I decided it was time for our intercultural adventure to end.
It was a full week before he called again. ‘‘Mr. Leighton!!’’ he sang, all cheer and charm. ‘‘I no hear from you. Where you go today?”. I gently informed him that I wasn’t going anywhere with him ever again, then sat listening to the grim silence on the other end. ‘‘Ok’’ he said eventually and hung up before I could offer my lukewarm condolences.
I have no idea what became of Ashraf. Maybe he’s still buzzing around Doha, his hopes and dreams sagging by the day. Or perhaps he put together a cast-iron saving plan, or met a naïve foreigner from whom he could extract large sums of money. Whatever the case, I do look back on our brief time together fondly. And I genuinely hope that somewhere… somehow… there was some ‘‘beautiful for Ashraf’’.
‘Ashraf’ is the first chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.