Occasionally, a gig comes along that leaves you thinking, ‘Is this humanly possible?’. The answer, it turns out, is always YES. After all, adrenaline works wonders, and after many gigging endurance tests I’m still here to tell the tale. Qatar, in summer time, is one of the hottest places imaginable, and whether you’re performing in the daytime or at night, it is still very, very hot. The heat is so entirely consuming that it doesn’t just come from the direction of the sun, but seems to to radiate from every direction, as if everywhere you went you were surrounded by fifty fan heaters covering the ground, the walls and the sky, and even in the shade. Our most recent gigs in the capital, Doha, varied from the slippery (intensely humid, much like swim-drumming through a hot bath) to the utterly parched (dry, contact lens-deteriorating), but we did it, and we survived.
Now that’s enough of talking about the heat. We were told on our first day in Doha that we had precisely one day during which we were allowed to mention the weather, and that was day one. Following that, no complaints, and no obvious statements regarding outdoor temperature. Done. Fin. Stop it at once.
We arrived in Doha at night, when it was still around 40 degrees Celsius (OK, I might have to mention it once or twice), stumbling quickly through the sweat between air conditioned airport, van, and finally to the hotel. After throwing down our things in tired and hungry delirium, we descended upon the Souk Waqif for the first of many outings to taste its glorious cuisine and explore its fascinating alleys and Aladdin’s caves full of good quality tat. Our midnight feast took place at a Syrian restaurant, its interior covered with hanging moons and stars, reminding us that Eid was fast approaching, plus there was a drumming man and an exciting/terrifying sword dance to add to the festivities. We filled ourselves with hummus, falafel, fattoush, tabbouleh, pastry, lamb and other delicious mystery meats in yoghurt sauces, got a mild chill from the air conditioning, tried a refreshing Syrian tamarind drink, and headed back out into the heated streets. We returned to the hotel to find our host and fellow performers, the friendliest bunch of people ever to grace a hotel lobby at 2 AM, and then it was time to sleep before the big rehearsal day ahead.
I say big rehearsal day… what I really mean is rehearsal night, because going outside to do this amount of moving during daylight hours is practically suicide; let’s just say I had a tremendous amount of respect for construction workers going about their daily jobs. Fortunately performers’ working hours tend to be in the latter half of the day, and so after a swift gym session, a visit to the (indoor) hotel pool, lunch and a team meeting, we set off in the late afternoon for our venue, at the Katara Cultural Village. This being the lead-up to Eid, reminders that it was still Ramadan were everywhere: most notably, we were forbidden to eat or drink anything (even water) in public before sunset with respect to the local traditions – no mean feat in this extreme climate. For this reason, traffic in Doha in the final hours of daylight was even more hectic than usual, making our daily commute in a minibus full of excitable circus performers all the more thrilling.
Twelve shows over four days, plus one mammoth, sweltering rehearsal. In each dream-like, LED-tastic show: a BMX gymnast, poi dance duo, German wheel, LED-clad break-dancers, a hula hoop acrobat, quick change duo, and to finish, us drummers. The third and final show of each night ended with an impressive firework display from the harbour behind the stage, at which point we moved quickly through the 4000-strong crowd to get photographs with more lights and sparkly things than ever. The gigs themselves went brilliantly, and we never tired of watching the quick change act before us, involving a dancing couple magically changing costume every few seconds in the blink of an eye. I saw that show twelve times and I still haven’t worked out how they do it (though I put this down to concentrating too hard on marching in time to their soundtrack, which changed tempo and/or time signature every time they revealed a new outfit).
As with the shows in Hong Kong earlier in the year, it felt good to be part of a larger group of performers forming one huge show. It meant spending every finale looking around in amazement as we were awestruck by the skill of the other acts, and ultimately having more people to empathise with when the sweat was dripping out of every nook and cranny of one’s being.
But the end of the show is never the end of the show. If a keen crowd wants photos, we give them photos, for however long it takes. In fact it’s often in the photo-taking that our theatrical characters really come to life, as this is the best chance to interact with our audience up-close. The crowds in Doha were among the most friendly and polite we’ve come across, and in many cases extremely trusting. At least, this was my thought as a man handed me his baby and left me there to fend for myself, attempting to get a tiny and completely unaware human to look towards a camera somewhere in the distance. Well, they did make me feel part of the family, if only for a few moments. Another man took the opposite approach, as he insisted on getting a photo with me without the means of eye contact or speech, and so it was only as he was leaving, seemingly unmoved by our moment together ‘on film’, that I noticed he was there. But overall, the atmosphere was alive: even at midnight, the audience consisted largely of little kids, full of energy, buzzing off the spectacular Eid celebrations.
After a string of incredible shows and many good times sharing bucketloads of hummus, falafel, pitta and mint lemonade at various eateries with our fellow performers, we had one final day off to explore our surroundings by ourselves. The Museum of Islamic Art is one of the most impressive buildings in Doha and perhaps one of the most inspiring structures I have ever seen: it’s simply an architectural heaven, inside and out. From floor to ceiling, every shape and angle is considered, designed, and executed perfectly. Climbing the stairs, one looks down upon a floor plan that could be an architectural drawing rather than a reality, with every item precisely, uniformly marking its place. And taking a closer look, you begin to notice the tiny Islamic geometric patterns present in almost everything – hidden gems in the lights and the walls – and a chandelier in the shape of a Darbuka drum. All of this against a backdrop of one huge window perfectly framing the Doha skyline over a turquoise sea.
We sat in the museum cafe in the central lobby, eating posh food from jars and drinking Moroccan mint tea from fancy teapots, taking in the view across the water from the safety of the bright, air-conditioned indoors. Then, remembering suddenly that this is not just a fancy building but a fancy building full of fancy things, we climbed the stairs to the first of many galleries. First up was a Muhammad Ali exhibition: an interesting tribute to his life, with a particular focus on his big fights in Qatar and his humanitarian principles; this was all the more moving following his very recent death. After this, we moved onto the Islamic art exhibits, covering just about every other space in the entire building. Handmade artefacts mostly from Central Asia and what we now know as the Middle East, dating from the 7th Century onward, covered every wall, and just when you thought you’d seen everything the entrance to yet another gallery appeared. What was most incredible was the amount of work that must have gone into making these highly-detailed objects – ornate rugs, doors, jewellery, lamps, tiles and so on – long before the time in which seemingly-vital tools came into existence. If people could do this kind of work then, we should all be doing it now without any struggle.
The final evening involved one last visit to the Souk, just down the road from the museum, admiring the old wooden dhow fishing boats as we strolled along the harbour. Winding down the hot market alleyways, which had trapped much of the heat from the 47-degree day, we enjoyed gawking at bright scarves, patterned rugs and Moroccan-style lamps, and taking in the evocative smells of spices and shisha, and I bought a traditional hat for tuppence. Sipping on our last mint lemonades outside amongst the bustle, we excitedly jumped up to the sound of a parade, and were pleasantly surprised to see an all-female group in gold masks, singing in Arabic, clapping and hitting drums and cymbals. If it hadn’t been for the flight we had to catch, we might have stayed all night. Next time, maybe we will.