Ten Days In Doha: June 2010, October 2010

Joshua Cicerone Issue: Section:

PART 1: SCOUTING MISSION

JUNE 2010, DAY 1
The jet-lag is especially brutal this time. All the haggling we did to secure a Business Class flight doesn’t seem to matter now. 14 hours in the air, New York to Doha, kicks my system out of whack. My partner marvels at my body’s seeming resistance to the strongest sleep medications. Noisy mind, I guess. Nothing too clever going on there, but just enough, always, to keep the sleep away. He pops a pill and passes out. I spend the flight in lucid dreaming, merging my life with characters from the worst TV I can find. Too many drugs over the years I suppose. My wife says I have the tolerance of a horse. Horse tranquilizers would be nice right about now.

First day was full of meetings with people that look younger than they are. Everyone seems eager and full of energy. I already want to go home. I have no doubt in their abilities, and clearly they feel the same about us. That works. It’s a massive undertaking we’re all committing to. Can’t help but notice we’re the youngest team here. I shake hands, nod through pleasant small talk. I try not to think about the greasy boil starting in my stomach. Something not right about that sandwich I had for lunch. I laugh at everyone’s jokes. Livin’ the dream, that’s what they say. I’d settle for one good night’s sleep. I can’t eat my dinner. I feel old.

JUNE 2010, DAY  2
It had to be the sandwich. I was exhausted when I walked into the hotel room, called my wife and pulled myself into bed. Even with lights out, the room was overdone and trying. That was Doha. Blue LED lights tucked behind furniture, strangely angled mirrors: a nighttime look designed for hipster ghosts. Lying down, I felt my face turn red. My mouth filled with saliva. I was covered in sweat. I kicked off the down comforter and let the air conditioning dry my core. My stomach churned. I just wanted to sleep. I dragged myself to the bathroom to find a bottle of water. I thought I'd take a piss. Instead I dropped to my knees and filled the toilet with vomit.

The sleep came unevenly, broken by painful, disgusting outbursts. The smell in the bathroom was starting to personify. There was a demon in there, ratcheting my insides, hungry for whatever shit and bile was left in my system. By the morning light, I knew there was no way I could leave this room. My partner was going to be pissed. He would be sure I was faking. I was the diva, the delicate artist that hated to talk process, to accommodate business relationships that subjugated my talents in the name of money. He should have been relieved. Without me, the meetings went extraordinarily well. In the meanwhile, I writhed and sweat through my sheets, re-defining hell.

JUNE 2010, DAY 3
The doctor came today. My partner figured I’d recovered by now. The tough meetings were over and maybe we could take in some sights. He took one look at me and called for backup. Good thing the doctor made house calls. I had lost track of how long we had been in Doha. With the curtains drawn, night and day meant nothing. The fevers came on with chills, then broke with sweats that drenched my pillows and sheets. I slept for ninety-minute intervals, and time became elastic. I woke up thinking it was 3pm, only to peek through the curtains and find the city asleep, the inimitable lighting design of Doha's skyline blinking before me. My stomach, meanwhile, was a blender. Every piece of bread I managed to swallow resulted in instant diarrhea. Every sip of water caused me to vomit. My body had simply given up on ingestion. Something was very, very wrong.

Have you ever needed a mirror to remind you who you are? At first I didn't think this was more than a stomach bug. But now I thought I was dying. The hotel room had taken on a strange character. I had ordered bread, water and a few other things that might help settle my stomach, but otherwise kept the room a sanctuary. Sweaty sheets hung over furniture, the bathroom floor was wet from careless showers I took trying to control my fever. I can only imagine I'd become accustomed to the smell. I kept the television on low, and the talking heads of world news gave me something to focus on. These international programs repeat, however, and I heard the same assessments of floods, famine and corruption repeated over and over. I must be dead and in hell. Shit, puke, repeat... for all eternity. I stared into the mirror. It had only been... 3... 4... days, but I had clearly lost weight. I made ridiculous faces in the mirror to remind myself I was alive and in control, but half the time I thought I was looking at a stranger.

JUNE 2010, DAY  4
I’m dying. I wish I was dead.

JUNE 2010, DAY  5
Finally the medicine is starting to work. It’s time to go home. I have severe hesitations about boarding the plane back to NY. I wonder if anyone has ever shit their pants in Qatar Airways Business Class?

As of today, we have a formal offer to come back in October. The assignment sounds daunting. We’re going to need a signed contract, and we’ll need to recruit a strong team. Our Qatari benefactors are clearly willing to pay us for our expertise, but I’m not sure they’re willing to take it on our terms.

PART 2: (FOUR MONTHS LATER) ON ASSIGNMENT

OCTOBER 2010, DAY 1
I woke up thinking I’d never left the field office. We’ve been in Doha for about two weeks now, and we’ve been working for months, but the real mission at hand begins tonight. We were here on an assignment of “arts & culture” but so far I’d just been playing politics. They said we’d have distinguished royal directives backing us, and a nearly endless wealth of resources. But for the past two weeks we’d been nearly on our own, fighting for every bit of funding, every auxiliary staff member. We’d brought nineteen operatives out to the desert under lofty pretenses, and now I was beginning to think we’d doomed them all.

It had not been easy getting here. My partner and I had turned down the same job two years ago for incredibly sane reasons. By all accounts we had avoided disaster. We wouldn’t get away so easy. Two years later, the project’s revival came with a revamped offer, and we went for it. So much for sane. This wasn’t only a professional challenge… it promised to be damn lucrative. We had met some strong talent on our scouting mission some months ago; we wouldn’t be alone. Soon we were signing a bruised-up contract in blood. And now it was Opening Night in Doha.

OCTOBER 2010, DAY 2
We were doing it. The stakes had never been higher, and by all accounts the opening night objectives had been met. My team had fallen into step with our benefactors’ marching orders, and had done well. They had instinctively extended themselves to cover for the incompetent manpower that was thrown at us as "support." And they'd done it with grace. That gave me the credits I needed to start making enemies. There was definitely something corrupt at the top of this power structure. I would use every favor earned by my team's successes to uncover the real conspiracy at work. At the very least, I would reveal our benefactors’ true nature.

By now, I thought we’d have relieved some pressure, but everything felt the same. “Groundhog Day” is what we called our first few weeks on the ground. Wake up early, meet in the hotel lobby, pile into cars, make a quick stop for coffee, and off to work… many of these were 16-hour days, punctuated with two daily meals of white rice and beef stew… and then we'd pour ourselves back into vehicles and go back to the hotel, where we would drink one beer in the lobby bar before falling asleep and starting the routine all over again. Groundhog Day.  

OCTOBER 2010, DAY 3
We’re nearly halfway through. Spirits are high. I try not to spoil my team’s outlook with my own neurosis, but I know the hardest part is yet to come. We have been through personal differences, we’ve had drivers lost in the desert and we’ve turned an unforgiving venue into a home. Sort of. The site of our mission in Doha is a model of excessive wealth and undisciplined taste. It’s a sprawling complex built mostly of marble, boasting a full-size reproduction of a Greek amphitheater and an exact replica of a Venetian Opera House. This country has the wealth to build whatever it wants, but no culture to fill it. That's why we’re here. Sort of.

OCTOBER 2010, DAY 4
I hate my life.

OCTOBER 2010, DAY 5
With tonight’s Closing Night ceremonies, we have fulfilled our benefactors’ goals. According to the international press, Qatar is an emerging capitol of arts and culture in the Middle East. In the end, our part of the puzzle is small, and I have to assume that’s exactly how our benefactors see it. I am beyond making enemies, or expecting thanks. I am simply proud of what’s been accomplished.

Today’s news reported a bomb plot foiled by U.S. Intelligence. The explosive cargo passed through Doha, on Qatar Airlines, destined for Chicago. Granted, Qatar is a friendly nation, open to Western arts and culture. The Qataris are among the more progressive and liberal-minded people in the Middle East. But I can’t help but wonder if creating a safe haven of Westernized culture in the Middle East might actually be a fool’s errand.

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