Souq Waqif, Doha’s resilient, labyrinthine market
A bakery in Souq Waqif, the revitalized market in the Qatar capital of Doha. (John Elk III/LPI)
The falcons sit like silent sentries, eerily still on wooden perches, their heads encased by hoods. Sometimes the hoods are made from simple leather, other times they are more ornate with studs and eyelets. These are among the most prized, and expensive, animals in the Arabian Gulf.
Inside the Bird Souq at Doha’s Souq Waqif, these falcons are bought and sold for sometimes thousands of riyals, but visitors can let them perch on their arms and even take photos, without charge, with the help of the storeowner. Nearby is the Falcon Hospital, where owners of the fierce creatures bring them for treatment.
The Bird Souq, which sells all of the accessories a falcon connoisseur may need, including GPS guidance systems and landing pads, is just a taste of one of Qatar’s most loved venues.
Souq Waqif, a labyrinthine market near the city’s waterfront, looks deceptively old. The site, whose name means “standing market”, dates back nearly a century, to a time when locals and Bedouins would travel to the area to buy and sell fish, goats and even wool. At that time, this part of the city was the shoreline of the Arabian Gulf, until developers began turning the water’s edge into more land.
Over the years, the market fell into disrepair and was abandoned as malls and other shopping options grew. Then in 2006, the first phase of a restoration reopened the souq, funded by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The cobbled lanes and white washed buildings, made using traditional Qatari architectural elements including mud rendered walls and exposed timber beams, look to be from a bygone era. Yet the souq is less than five years old.
The designers sought to revive the memory of the area by demolishing modern buildings and insulating the remaining buildings against extreme heat with traditional methods using locally sourced wood and bamboo imported from Asia. Some elements of the old souq remain, most notably the Bismillah Hotel (located on the main walkway; 974-44374417), said to be the first in Qatar and the one with the best view of the market. Souq Waqif could be derided as a tourist trap or a Disney version of Qatar’s past, but it is more than that.
In addition to the scores of restaurants that line the main thoroughfare, ranging from Iraqi food to flavoured tobacco shisha to Haagen Daaz ice cream, the area is a functioning market. Tourists gently haggling with good natured shopkeepers over the price of pashminas rub shoulders with Qatari and Indian families buying everything from traditional garments to giant pots used for cooking traditional lamb dishes. The Souq is renowned for its selection of spices from the region and South Asia (sumac, saffron, preserved lemons), and for selling colourfully wrapped chocolate and sweets by the kilo.
Each covered alley sells a different commodity. Down one, tailors make bisht, traditional robes for formal events and weddings that incorporate gold thread, made by men who have been making them for generations. Another alley sells honey from Yemen and dates from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman . One area yields a baker selling Iranian bread – its gossamer thin layers served hot – and another has a store selling local floor coverings and bags. A few steps away is the Al Zubair Shop (on the main walkway; 974-6657-2004), where you can find Arabian autoharps, 12-string ouds (a pear-shaped stringed instrument) and darbuka (Arab drums). Bulk goods shoppers in need of a cart can pay 20 riyals to one of the elderly men pushing wheelbarrows.
A recent addition to Souq Waqif is the Animal Souq, where everything from turtles to baby rabbits are sold. A recent and alarming trend of dyeing rabbits and chicks pink and blue has emerged, presumably to make the animals more attractive to buyers.
During the summer months, the restaurants and cafes provide fans and mist sprayers to keep patrons cool as they sip fresh juice and watch the passing parade of shoppers. In the cooler months, the market is so popular that paid parking was introduced in a bid to control numbers. Open air cultural performances and concerts featuring traditional Qatari sword dancing take place every weekend in the winter.