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Crab Bucket

posted Dec 8, 2010, 1:11 PM by Amie Neff   [ updated Feb 15, 2011, 3:14 PM ]
I just finished listening to the New York times article about a few new development projects in the Persian Gulf by I.M.Pei, Gehry, Foster and Jean Nouvel. ( Two of the projects are located in Doha, Qatar where I spent the summers of '81-'83 as a young girl. The projects aren't so unlike all the other projects you've seen from this quartet. Pei's simple geometry and Gehry's undulant metallic forms, for example, are the same here as they are in Paris, or Indiana or Bilbao or any other location you find their work. Their *work* is the draw, not the place, and this gives them permission to ignore context.  But this post isn't a continuation of the debates I endured in architecture theory and critique classes. Because for me the draw was the place, this post is going to be about crabs.  

When I was 11 my father moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Qatar. For each of the three years he lived there, I spent my summers with him on the top floor of a sand-colored stucco building, in a sandy apartment, in the middle of the desert on the outskirts of Doha. Though I couldn't say now what the address was, many years ago I found the building in Google Maps. Now the image is too hazy to reliably locate anything. My guess is that the Shamal has obscured the latest satellite view. Also, the building I lived in was on the edge of town, and the edge of town has moved. Was it inside "C Ring" road? Yes. But I don't remember Al Jazeera Road, or all the new Hospitals, or Universities that you see from above these days. I remember this phone number: 011 974 831 174. and I remember that on a good day, from the balcony off the kitchen, you could see the Gulf.

Throughout the year before my first visit, my father (thanks for the crab photo dad!) sent me letters telling me about what he was learning, and what I might expect to find. In the letters were photos, sometimes audio recordings, along with a confounding array of trinkets and trifles; paper-thin dresses made in India, fans of aromatic sandalwood, musky-perfumes, floor-plans of his new apartment. My first summer was spent lazily by the pool of the Gulf Hotel where Sandy, a red-head from the Orkney Islands and her son, Carlo (also 11!) tried their best to entertain me. It wasn't too hard, the pool was usually empty save for us three and was entirely surrounded by fragrant flowering Puakenikeni, and climbing Pink Oleander, it was an oasis in the desert that sulked outside the hotel. We sat around eating twiglets; marmite covered pretzels and drinking (alcohol free!) daiquiris. In retrospect, this would have been a great time for me to take language classes. Would it have killed me to have spent a few hours of my day learning Arabic?

During the year leading up to my second summer, my father befriended an architect whose firm had been hired by the Al Thani family to build (so he said) a palace on a manmade jetty jutting into the north side of the Doha gulf. Loads of infrastructure was needed, the jetty was constructed of thousands of 4' cubes of quarried stone, and the gulf sand had been raked to accommodate them. This is where we would come for crabs. To get to there we drove down a long narrow spit, at the near end of which was a nearly-circular cove, and the far end was a less protected 'C'.  On my first trip to the crabbing spot I had just one job: take the crabs from the divers and put them into the coolers. This sounds easy, but managing a full cooler of angry crabs on ice, barefoot over jumbles of hard rock was a challenge for this 12 year old. Plus, unshaded rock in 106degree air gets hot. I begged for a transfer. 

On our next crab outing I was allowed to dive. It is really easy to swim in the Persian Gulf. It has the highest water salinity content on the planet; equal to that of the Red Sea and salt helps you float. After coming out of the gulf waters, it takes about 1 minute before your skin is white as a Clydesdale after a hard run, and you are never, ever completely dry. We often swam in the smaller cove, which I remember being large enough to take a good half-hour to swim slowly from one side to the other along the circumference, but easy enough to swim back to whomever was responsible for the crab bucket. The bottom was also only about 12'-18' deep. Despite the easy swimming, I think my father might have had some concerns about my safety; There was no beach, we were trespassing on the Emir's land, there are sharks, albeit small ones in the Persian Gulf, and crabs pinch....hard. Also, we were using a hacked weapon to spear our crabs. A tri-pronged spear-fishing tip was attached to a wooden broom handle. I remember they were threaded, but I also remember there was lots of duct tape. I remember especially that if, after spearing your crab, you torqued the handle too fast to bring the crab up to the surface, you might lose the crab, who might be inclined to deliver a well placed pinch on his fall to the sea floor, or, worse; you might lose the spear tip. No spear tip=bucket duty. 

I became expert. The piles of jetty stone created loads of nooks and crannies for all sorts of sea creatures. There were colorful reef fish, large grouper, a periodic eel and of course blue crabs. Blue crabs seen even from 15' below the ocean appear green, and though they are 6"-8" in diameter they are fierce and bold. When you spot a crab, it's better if he spots you too, because then he leaves the safety of the rock and comes out into the open with claws raised and snapping, ready to fight. As a diver, you have to be a sure; the spear handle height is 5' maximum, the water perhaps 15' deep. You must maintain at 10' below the surface in super buoyant water, with spear in both hands, mark your crab, re-position, spear and have enough air to get back to the surface. A miss is a lot more common than a hit. Crabs aren't super fast, but they are wily, they swim sideways, and they are never too far from the rocky caves. This spot, like an echo wall, allowed us to make an accurate tally of each win. The crunch of a hit signaled each person's successes. Finding the next crab was like watching the Perseids meteor shower; the sighting of the next one was always thrilling and surprising at the same time. If you were swimming with a partner, it was essential to share your finds, "look, look, did you see that one!" They were everywhere, really. When the buckets were full we would go home, we would spread arabic-language newspaper on the living room coffee table. We wore bibs and had finger bowls we drank carefully rationed coca cola or beer. In short, we would feast. 

I.M. Pei says of Doha, that she doesn't have a history, that before (his building?) there was nothing and that everything is moldable and changing. Jean Nouvel says that the discovery of industrial riches have created a life in opposition to Qatar's nomadic and simple origins. The riches of the country before oil were beautiful; desert roses, tent villages, the paucity of the landscape, the infinite sunshine. The shape today is harsh and ugly, with towering oil platforms and rigs. "The challenge will be," Nouvel muses, "to show how the new way of life here also has a very strong identity, which is still taking shape today."  I believe Nouvel, but fear Pei's view will win. When tourists come to see their new buildings will they also haggle at the suq, run fingers through hot dunes, suffer the shamal, rejoice at the wadi, be mesmerized by prayer call, sandalwood, frankincense, the shisha, eat fresh crab? Maybe. I hope so.