Ashraf, a short story from Qatar.
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 Garden. It was just a fifteen minute drive from the city’s commercial district. With row after symmetrical row of terracotta villas, the place had everything young unemployed me could’ve possibly needed. There was a gym, saunas, squash courts and a small store selling American snacks. Moreover, my new home also had a massive swimming pool, complete with a wooden bridge and an illuminated waterfall that came on in the evenings. Life certainly wasn’t bad!
Then there was our villa, a massive space that comfortably housed my parents, brother, sister, dog and I without ever feeling cramped. It was the most luxurious home we’d ever had and I remember feeling like the guy who’d won the lottery. In those first few days I did little more than lounge about the house thinking about what I was going to do with myself in Doha.
When I finally felt the need to escape my suburban bubble, I grabbed a lift into town with my dad. Soon after I started hailing one of the many orange and white taxis driven by English speaking Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. Doha was literally stood at the entrance gates of what would become an unprecedented economic boom. Hence I could see the city developing right before my eyes as I sped down its shiny new roads.
Ashraf, a short story from Qatar.
With much curiosity, I’d watch from the car window 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 pockets of residential areas, I saw wide expanses of dusty, vacant land. Here and there, Coming Soon billboards trumpeted the impending arrival of international fast food chains. It was also common to see armies of landscapers out in the burning sun, laying down lush beds of grass for a new city park.
My first trips into Doha included lengthy investigations of Souq Waqif, also known as The Iranian Souq. I spent many an hour here 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 kilometre horseshoe around the deep blue Doha Bay. However, the uncompromising summer heat proved so aggressive the corniche was virtually deserted in the day. In contrast, early mornings and evenings saw the whole place spring into life with joggers, ambling couples and families picnicking on the grass. I always felt so perfectly peaceful there, a feeling I’d never really had before.
One evening I took a long walk down the promenade, before grabbing a few beers at The Sheraton Hotel. This was one of the few places an expat could actually 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 tooth smile and a Clark Gable moustache.
‘‘Beverly Hills Garden’’ I replied, as he let off an impressed whistle, beating the steering wheel excitedly with his fists.
‘‘Wowee! … American yes?’’
‘‘Wowee! … Stinking rich yes?’’
During the drive 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, his moustache twitching excitedly at the thought. ‘‘But first need money. No money… no beautiful for Ashraf’’.
As we pulled up at my compound’s security gate, I gave the guard a familiar wave and he lifted the barrier to allow us through. Parking right outside my front door, Ashraf grinned and whipped 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 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 Ashraf 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.
Ashraf, a short story from Qatar.
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. Certainly not a world for Ashraf’’.
It wasn’t long after that my trusty driver started to become tardy. First of all he was twenty minutes late from picking me up at the corniche after a morning of water sports. Subsequently, he began arriving later and later. One day, on my way back from City Center, Ashraf claimed to have no change. As a result, 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 Doha Corniche. The plan was for Ashraf to come pick me up. Then we’d shoot over to her place before heading to the restaurant. She’d seemed impressed when I foolishly told her about ‘‘my driver’’. That day Ashraf 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?!?’’
“Taxi engine finished… three thousand Riyals for new! Can you help?!?’’
By ‘‘help’’ of course he meant fund the entire project. Moreover, ‘‘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. Maybe even with 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, hence 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 Ashraf that I wasn’t going anywhere with him ever again. After that I just 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. Possibly he 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… finally… there was some ‘‘beautiful for Ashraf’’.
‘Ashraf’ is the first chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.
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