Like the Las Vegas hotel of the same name, Doha’s Villagio Mall showcases the many ways in which Doha defines and showcases its economic success. Various distractions, from the fake canal to an indoor amusement park, equate exclusivity to escape. Here, luxury is one’s ability to purchase European products to showcase a cosmopolitan aesthetic. But the Villagio also provides valuable community spaces, such as an ice skating rink that hosts a variety of family events and a youth hockey team.
The Villagio is a prime spot for observing the subtleties of Doha fashion. While stores from TopShop to Dior display skintight dresses, the majority of people in the mall wore traditional Arab clothing – a category with endless variations. Some of the newest abaya trends for women are the addition of gold shoulder spikes and black-on-black accents, much like the pseudo-punk studs popular in the US. They meticulously choose accessories that peek out from the edges of black cloth, sporting neon pumps or glittery bangles. Women are also keenly aware of how the hijab frames the face and often paint on thick, bold eyebrows or plum lips to distinguish their features against the halo of fabric. In Doha, male fashion is less about individual style and more about how the the folding of smaghs and shorahs represent different nationalities. To a foreigner the clothing itself is not intimidating – even the seemingly imposing burqas become familiar – but the gender imbalance of who wears traditional attire can be uncomfortable. Men frequently wear western garb alongside their completely covered wife but I have never seen the reverse, which raises inquiries about the power of dress and modesty of people within public spaces and the expectations of tradition within Arab relationships.
The Carrefour, a French supermarket chain, is akin to both a grocery store and large retain chain like Target. Walking through its aisles is strangely comforting for American expats who crave Kellog’s cereal or apples from Washington state, but there are many products not widely available in the United States. Pomegrantes are less than a dollar per pound, the spice vendor is like an aromatic butcher shop, and there is an entire section dedicated to just to yogurt products. Produce is shipped from all over the globe, making distant countries close neighbors along the aisles.
Closely examining food preparation and distribution can reveal what values are central to a place’s identity, and the Carrefour showcases Qatar’s insatiable appetite and global palate. Like Doha, it caters to a desire for foreign goods and a comfortable lifestyle, but its sterility and haltingly cheap prices bring up concerns about the city’s sustainable development. The Carrefour’s sleek appearance fades workers away from the public eye, but their presence and that of workers directly involved with production or manufacturing cannot be ignored. The food is cheap not because locally-sourced produce is plentiful, but rather because its is shipped from distant places without fair wages or working conditions. It is cheap because the men and women working the checkout registers live in the conditions discussed in my previous posts. While these exact problems are also pervasive in the United States, Doha is in a unique position as a small country with a highly efficient government to advocate for more socially responsible economies. The Villagio may be an idealized commercial space, but it is also a critical intersection within the Qatari economy and culture that showcases the country’s social values.