In search of Doha’s past

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DohaDoha, the capital of the tiny state of Qatar, is not exactly my kind of place. It may be an impressive human achievement of clawing an urban oasis from the clutches of unforgiving desert. Yet, shiny and brand new, Doha largely lacks the appeal of cities with long history and local character. Up until the early 20th century, Doha just like most other settlements on the Persian Gulf, was a small fishing and pearling town ravaged by economic depression after the introduction of the cultured pearls in the region in the 1930s. Its fortune reversed – just like Dubai’s – with the discovery of oil and later natural gas, and a steady stream of petrodollars that followed. In a rush to modernize, most of the remnants of Doha’s previous self were eradicated to make space for highways crowded with ubiquitous Nissan pick up trucks, expensive hotels, and futuristic-looking sky scrapers.

Doha truck

Leading mode of transportation in Doha – aside from white SUVs – according to my unscientific survey

But one small area, the old town if you will, has been preserved – or rather recreated – to lend a glimpse into the past. Souq Waqif is a maze of traditional houses and shops built out of stone, mud, wood, and plaster, clustered around the Kut fort dating back to 1880, with restaurants serving local and regional fare along the main drag. Its name translates as “the standing market,” which I was told refers to the fact that before extensive land reclamation projects that formed the crescent of the Doha bay as we know it today, the area was prone to flooding and hence market vendors often had to stand ankle deep in briny water. Established in the early 19th century, the market deteriorated over time and after a big fire in 2003 was essentially rebuilt from scratch, which gives it a peculiar new-old feel.

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif, colorful but sleepy during hot mid-day hours

Souq Waqif

Nearby stable provides a local attraction

Souq Waqif

Reflection

You can buy anything here, from colorful fabric, gold, spices, and even falcons to cheap Chinese household goods, Angry Birds balloons, and Psy action figures. Soccer motives are big, too, given that Qatar will host 2022 FIFA World Cup. Although given the predilections of global soccer fans I can’t imagine how that event is going to work exactly with Qatar’s severely limited access to alcohol… But I digress. Back to shopping:

Souq Waqif

Shoppers’ paradise

Souq Waqif

Mona Lisa with her famous smile covered? As I said, you can buy anything here…

Souq Waqif

…even a boat

Souq Waqif

Interesting balloon selection

And for bulk purchases there are wheelbarrows conveniently parked outside and read to go. Inexpensive supply of “drivers” is also plentiful thanks to Doha’s demographics skewed severely toward migrants from South Asia. Qataris are the minority here and in dealings with shop owners, waiters, and taxi drivers, Urdu, Hindi and Tagalog (or English for that matter) are often more useful than Arabic.

Souq Waqif

Bulk “shopping carts” outside Souq Waqif

Slow and sleepy during the day, Souq Waqif truly comes to life at night. The main drag fills out with leisurely strolling crowds of locals and tourists alike, restaurants tempt with Middle Eastern delicacies, and puffs of delicious smoke envelop busy shisha bars. So easy to enjoy for hours and watch the world go by on a balmy night when relentless desert heat gives way to refreshing ocean breeze… My favorite culinary highlights included tender baby camel at Tajine Moroccan restaurant, sumptuous maskoof carp at Al Adhamiyah Iraqi restaurant, and unforgettable sweets masterfully baked by the Hallab shop.

Souq Waqif

Only one word of commentary required for that scene: relaaaaax…

Souq Waqif

Hello there! But shouldn’t you be in bed at this hour?

Al Adhamiyah

Al Adhamiyah Iraqi restaurant serving delicious maskoof (or masguf) style carp cooked over open flame

Akhallab

Ending the evening with pastries to die for at Abdel Kader Hallab’s bakery

Souq Waqif

Wait, haven’t we been here before?

To me those were the places where the spirit of old Doha, Doha of rickety fishing boats and dusty shopping alleys, comes alive, even if in somewhat theme park-like form. In a place where food is so good, I don’t mind =)

Old Doha

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5 responses »

  1. Pingback: Doha’s architectural gem | Sandstone and amber

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