Old Souk in Doha

New, but capturing the best of former traditional architecture, Souk Waqif offers a mix of antique & new, utilitarian & decorative, fine dining and character.

Working in Qatar I spent more time 80km (50 miles) north in Ras Laffan Industrial City than in Doha – and on the two occasions I managed to get to the Old Souk - Souq Waqif - which lies between Al Souk and Souk Waqif streets, it was Friday, the Holy Day. Most of the shops were closed. The falcons in the Falcon Souk were unfortunately absent as well, and I would love to go back again when it is in full trade and spend time with these grand birds at the falcon market.

A nearby intersection was supervised from under the shaded stand of this traffic policemen as cars and trucks pulled into a busy parking lot.

Doha Old Souk traffic policeman

The first time there, the cab duly arrived back at an appointed time and particular entrance to collect us.

The second time I had been assured there were ‘lots of taxis’, but being a Friday, there were not. The wait to flag one down nearly melted me, even though it was late evening.

A worthwhile note: finding a taxi in Doha is a bit problematic if you are not right in the centre, so it is worthwhile making a time for collection or arranging to call a particular taxi or hotel car.

The trick is to recognize the entrance at which you were dropped and to which you have to get back!

It’s helpful to jot down the name of a nearby shop so you can get directed to it if you find yourself at the wrong entrance.

Though it might go against the grain of western men to ask directions, follow the simple Qatar saying:

He who asks will not be lost.

You will not diminish yourself by asking for directions - and it might well be a necessity to do so!

Qatar Doha Old Souk corner entrance

The Old Souk has been rebuilt to replace what reputedly was an extremely unprepossessing earlier version.

The maze of narrow alleys internal courtyards, rooftop restaurants and galleries come alive in the evening, and members of the large expatriate community and tourists mingle with Qataris busy making household purchases.

There are beautiful doorways off carved and patterned wood ….

Qatar Doha Old Souk doorway

…or glass and brass, luring you inward.

Qatar Doha Old Souk glass door

The architecture of Souq Waqif is a lovely melding of Moorish and traditional Arabic – its pleasing lines clean, elegant, and functional - with roof terraces and airy windows and balconies.

Qatar Doha Old Souk architecture

In its coolness and variety of things to captivate your imagination, the Doha Old Souk is a pleasant place to browse.

The electrical wiring gathered loosely in a jumble on the walls (as you can see on the top left of this photo – reminded me rather of the same effect in Cuba.

There are lots of men with wheelbarrows, like this one, with the man patiently waiting to deliver his goods internally.

Qatar Doha Old Souk passage

There are lots of men with wheelbarrows, like this one, with the man patiently waiting to deliver his goods internally.

This is a two way transport system, both bringing goods in for the store-keepers, and carrying them out for the shoppers.

Waiting for a taxi that was not forthcoming, I watched as expensive 4WD vehicles pulled up to the entrances from their parking spots and barrows laden with furniture, bulk foodstuffs and hardware arrived to be unloaded.

The wiry barrowman, having transported a barrow load of goods all from the various vendors, then had to find a way to pack it into the vehicle which, given the volume of the purchases, was like finishing a jigsaw puzzle you had never seen before in record time and under pressing supervision.

Since more than 90% of the population of Qatar lives in Doha, I wondered why they were stocking up as if they lived in the desert and only made a quarterly trip into the city.

Unfortunately, the falcon market wasn’t open on the two occasions I was there, as each time it was Friday and it being the Holy Day, many of the shops were closed. However, I did spend time in the gold section, reviewed the pearls – once the staple economy before natural gas and petroleum gave the country incredible wealth, and lingered in the spice market where even from the few open shops, the air was heavy with scents – both familiar and exotically different.

Ladies in black abayat and headscarves combed through a range of brilliantly coloured materials – an interesting chromatic contrast.

Qatar Doha Old Souk silks

There were stalls of perfume – heady, musky, exotic Ittar – or Attara, made from naturally distilled oils extracted from flowers, wood and herbs – and aged for up to 10 years– usually in sandalwood.

The resulting perfumes are highly concentrated and due to their purity, a little goes a long way and they don’t deteriorate the way that western perfumes can do.

The cut crystal perfume bottles – or Itardans - that are on sale to hold the perfumes of Doha are as exotic as the scent.

Traditionally, these were filled with perfume and often given as gifts by the nobility to departing guests.

Qatar Doha Old Souk Perfume Bottles

However, I lingered longest at the shops with real regional antiques (as distinct from reproduction).

Here there were maps and diaries, old lamps and all sorts of unrelated things - even this wooden boat.

Qatar Doha Old Souk wooden crafts

There are some other “Eastern” antiques not necessarily from the region but not lacking in quality and interest.

Qatar Doha Old Souk antiques

It is possible to buy some things made locally – but you have to look for them, and some are being made before your watchful gaze in the shops of the Old Souk.

Qatar Doha Old Souk wood carving

A Souk seems to be a place where most commodities of the region are for sale, whether it be jewellery…

Qatar Doha Old Souk jewellery shop

….a fishing boat complete with paddles, nets and anchor…

Qatar Doha Old Souk fishing boat

…or perhaps a saddle for your camel.

Seeing it reminded me of the proverb:

Trust in God but tie your camel

Qatar Doha Old Souk camel saddle

The shop of the music maker were closed on my first visit but I went straight there on the second and managed to purchase for a musician friend a small traditional drum of goatskin, with goat hair sides, and a larger round one, similar to an Irish Bodrum.

These traditional drums were a bit large to be transported back in my luggage but are in themselves works of art.

Qatar Doha Old Souk drums

The drums stacked together formed lovely patterns.

Qatar Doha Old Souk stacked drums

These beautifully crafted Oud were being sound tested by a musical tourist of some talent.

Qatar Doha Old Souk oud shop

I lingered – enjoying the music in the heavy warm air of evening.

Qatar Doha Old Souk ouds

These beautifully crafted Oud were being sound tested by a musical tourist of some talent.

I lingered – enjoying the music in the heavy warm air of evening.

The oud is similar to a lute, but a smaller neck and no frets. It sounds very similar to a zither – and they are lovely just as pieces of art, let alone as instruments.

Here is a clip of a Qatari musician on the Oud.

Imagine yourself in a desert camp listening to this haunting music

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvy698_Mi08

Qatar Doha Old Souk oud making

In the region, maqhah, or coffeehouses, are gathering places for the convivial smoking of tobacco with these hubble bubble pipes (known elsewhere as hookah), with which tobacco smoke is passed through a small bowl of water to purify and cool it.

The source of the tradition is variably attributed to India and to China, but has become a hallmark of Arab community life.

Qatar Doha Old Souk shisha pipes and lamps

The shisha is prepared by placing the charcoal tray on the pipe with the clay bowl (with attached grommet) on top. The bowl is then covered with a small sheet of aluminium foil which is pricked to allow the air to flow through.

White hot charcoal is then placed on the outside of the bowl and the hose attached to the grommet.

The trick is to make gentle, long draws through the pipe so the air is drawn evenly through the tobacco without burning.

Given so much preparation, and the necessity to keep pipes clean to stop unpleasant build up of flavours, you can understand why shisha smoking with friends at cafes is so popular, as here there are always pipes ready at a whim.

Qatar Doha Old Souk shisha pipes

On one rooftop terrace this ornate brazier kept coals ready to replenished in the many pipes in use on the restaurant roof terrace or at the outside tables in the souk walkway.

Qatar Doha Old Souk charcoal brazier

It was Ramadan, so until sunset, the restaurants were empty.

Qatar Doha Old Souk at prayer time

But later they quickly filled with visitors and locals alike.

Qatar Doha Old Souk at night

The squares and walkways became filled with couples, families and groups of men gathered together to smoke and chat … and as always in the region – talk on their mobile phones.

Qatar Doha Old Souk evening

Inside the restaurants are beautiful woods, leather furnishings – and a general feeling of luxury.

Qatar Doha Old Souk restaurant-interior

Ignoring the growing crowds, this donkey waited patiently for young riders – or tourists.

Qatar Doha Old Souk donkey

In the setting of Doha’s recreated “Old” Souk the waiting donkey fit with the visitor’s concept of what a Doha Souk might be.

Qatar Doha Old Souk waiting donkey

The prophet Muhammad, when asked what was most excellent in a human being, answered:

A friendly disposition

In the restaurants and shops of the Old Souk of Doha they adhere to this principal.

For a wider overview of Doha - here is a video made for the Football World Cup bid.

Doha Football World Cup Bid video

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