[dropcap]D[/dropcap]usty, nomadic desert-dwelling Bedouin make their way slowly along the creek knowing their exact destination – Souq Waqif. With camels packed down with wool, meat and cloth, the Bedouin have come to this marketplace to sell and buy goods, such as rice, dates and other essentials.
Fast forward to 2012 and not much has changed. Yes, the pure Bedouin have been replaced with tourists and locals, and the camels and horses have yielded to high-performance automobiles and Land Cruisers. But people still come by the hundreds to Souq Waqif to barter for goods, rest and enjoy a traditional meal, capped off with some flavored sheesha (water pipe), and enjoy an evening featuring lots of small talk.
I’m one of those visitors who technically isn’t a local, although Doha, Qatar is now my home.
Souq Waqif is an exceptional piece of history dating back at least a century. Just think of the stories that have been shared over the decades in this place.
The souq, Arabic for ‘the standing market’, dates from the time Doha was a village and its inhabitants gathered on the creek banks to buy and sell their goods. Long gone is the creek, although the waterfront is a mere street away. Originally known as the Cemetery Market since it was adjacent to a graveyard, you’d be hard pressed to hear it referred to by its old graveyard name today.
[box_light]What’s New is Old Again[/box_light]
It is important to understand that Qataris, as are most Arabs, are deeply attached to their traditions rooted in a past of which they are immensely proud. So it is no surprise that officials recognized the need and value of renovating Souq Waqif – bringing it up to 21st century standards – ensuring that a proud tradition continues.
One of Doha’s most important heritage sites, the souq revitalization project began in January 2004 intent on preserving its historical charm. The Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, directed renovations to “resurrect the 1930’s era in its corridors and galleries” without compromising its ancient style.
Mohamed Al Abdullah, the project designer, extensively studied and researched the traditional local architecture. According to him, approximately 75 percent of the structures were revived in their original form.
Thus, modern buildings were demolished; rickety metal roof sheets gave way to traditionally built mangrove roofs, bamboo poles bound by matting of clay and straw; and traditional tried and true methods of insulating the buildings against the desert heat re-introduced.
Back in the day, natural stones and clay were used; therefore, walls would not withstand heights above 6 ½ feet. Wooden lintels and panels supported the stone walls. Today’s natural color stone structures cause visitors to doubt that they are not the originals. No cement or steel was reportedly used in the renovation of the old buildings.
A sophisticated lighting system was incorporated along with international standards of sprinklers and smoke detectors. The present day open-air exterior street is polished stone while narrow, shaded alleyways are smooth concrete paths wandering throughout. The “new” old souq was complete by 2007.
[box_light]A Vibrant Marketplace[/box_light]
As the hot desert sun begins its evening descent across the horizon, the souq begins readying itself from a daytime of near deserted alleyways and shuttered storefronts to a flurry of hustle and bustle of life. During the week the souq closes at nine p.m., but many shops remain open longer on the weekends. In Qatar, the weekend begins on Thursday evening and ends Saturday night.
The smells and sights abound – particularly in the spice souq. Colorful spices (ground and whole) are displayed in sacks, boxes and on platters. Shopkeepers welcome the opportunity to tell visitors about the history of spices and beam when you comment in awe on the multicolored spice pyramids they painstakingly create. Suq air is thick with the smells of spices – cumin and saffron – while only a few alleyways over, strong oil-based Arabic perfume fills the air. All of a sudden, the scent of incense makes you take note.
Wandering into a quaint perfumery shop is a pleasant deviation. The shopkeepers are more than willing to explain the origins of their scents. You’ll quickly run out of untested wrist and neck space from sampling the exotic oils. Vendors selling perfumes are more than happy to custom blend concoctions to your individual sense of smell.
Hawkers and traders are not shy as they vie for your attention and summon you over. Whether you are interested in local foods, Arabic perfume, coveted antiques and regional handicraft, or unusual trinkets, traditional clothing or bright colored fabric, bargaining – and sometimes intense negotiating – is welcomed and expected. Don’t worry about language barriers; English is widely spoken and understood.
Handmade sweets and great varieties of almonds and other nuts attack taste buds and wallets, never to disappoint.
Visiting the souq is not just about shopping however. This is an enriching cultural and social experience. Be adventurous. Plan to take your time wandering the narrow streets and passageways of rows upon rows of stalls, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself temporarily turned around. I still find myself lost in the animal/bird souq. It happens to everyone. After all, that’s part of the intrigue of discovering new sights and meeting people of a foreign land; it offers an ideal opportunity to converse with locals while asking for directions.
In the handicraft alleyways, lingering is encouraged while watching craftsmen weave baskets and mats from palm leaves, while perhaps an alleyway or two over women in traditional dress are busy creating cushion covers and bags from colorful hand-loomed cloth. At the rear of the souq away from the restaurants, women nightly gather around their portable heaters making and selling ethnic foods and breads. It’s hard not to notice the wheelbarrows everywhere with their “owners” ready to deliver your large purchases to your car.
First-time visitors can wander for hours ducking in and out of small alleyways finding themselves originally in the spice souq only to have spilled out into a paved lane leading into the textile souq with its sensory overload of multi-colored fabrics. Navigating these narrow, often chaotic, lanes is part of the thrill along with a chattering mix of nationalities and the rise and fall of unknown accents.
[box_light]Middle East Cuisine[/box_light]
An abundance of restaurants and coffee shop waiters solicit your patronage, and offer a wide variety of cuisine, along with a few modern surprises, such as the Haagen Das ice cream stand. Whatever type of meal you order, it is guaranteed to be tasty and worth returning for. Damasca One, for instance, offers superb Syrian cuisine and their Kibbe in Yogurt is fabulous. I’ve yet to be served a ho-hum dish. Prices are very reasonable and there is usually live music either inside or on the street. Most souq restaurants offer international fare, and many serve sheesha. The ambiance and atmosphere (people watching) that prevail are highly recommended in any of the eating establishments.
One evening while sitting on the rooftop section of a restaurant, I accidentally spilled my glass of water onto the bench cushion. The Arab waiter noticed and immediately appeared with a smile, telling me: “Stand up please. We will do this the Arab way. Flip the cushion over. Now sit down and enjoy your meal.”
The souq is brimming with colonnaded walkways where visitors sit and watch the world pass by – and you pass by – which is a great way to relax and rejuvenate before continuing on your way. Another evening my husband and I found ourselves passing through the falcon souq area. Falconry is a long-established Arab tradition, and these birds that are for sale garner handsome prices for their owners. They perched motionless and shrouded seemingly unaware of our presence.
Wandering even further into the night and down a darkened alleyway that we somehow found ourselves in, surprisingly led us to a horse stable. The stable hand explained that these were the Emir’s horses and his private stable here on the outskirts of the souq in Doha and next to a major road leading to the Corniche. He proudly led us on a brief walking tour pointing out the Arabian horses from Dubai, commenting on the mares who were gathered in the open corral, and the studs segregated within stalls, all with their individual names on a plaque above the stall. The young Arab explained that the Arabian horse is one of the oldest and purest breeds in the world. The Arabian breed evolved from the need for an animal that would travel fast over long distances and require little food or water.
The stables were very clean and impressive, with architecture complementing the souq architecture, and I was encouraged to take all the photos I wanted. I suppose that most everyone knows about these stables and their mighty beasts, but I felt as though I had made a great discovery stumbling blindly onto the place.
Souq Waqif attracts people from all social strata and different places in the world. Weekends often feature free musical events, carnival rides, strolling musicians, and go-karting. As both a traditional open-air public space where shoppers, tourists and those looking forward to a delicious meal congregate, and yet an actual working market, the best of all worlds are brought together; what’s old is new again.