In the heart of the Qatar World Cup

By Javier Picazo Feliú

Doha, Oct 4 (EFE).- Doha, the main venue for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, is a modern and futuristic capital where skyscrapers, contemporary buildings and streets, as well as promenades that have been completely remodeled for the event, contrast with the traditions and history encapsulated by Souq Waqif market, its cultural heart. 

But, as with everything in Qatar, the souq is also a recent creation. 

While the marketplace originally dates back to the end of the 19th century as a hub for livestock trade between Bedouins and merchants, the Souq Waqif (which means “standing market”) that we see today is a result of a renovation completed in 2008. 

It sprawls over Doha’s Al Jasrah neighborhood, a traditional fishing area home to cemeteries and, now, a huge underground parking lot and a portion of land reclaimed from the sea. 

The souq’s mud walls and bamboo and wood roofing preserve the local architectural style while offering respite from the soaring summer temperatures. 

It will be a main tourist attraction for football fans heading to Qatar this year, many of whom will feel as though they have entered a movie set or a theme park. 

A woman walks through the Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar. EFE/ Alberto Estévez

The souq is a charming environment. Its walls are dappled with light from little hanging lanterns, its quaint squares bustle with life and lining its labyrinthian pathways are thousands of stalls selling everything from football shirts to fabrics, spices, coveted jewels and pearls, gold and animals of all kinds, including falcons. 

Adding to the aromas of spice are the various food options on offer, from the best street food stalls in Qatar to high-end restaurants. 

“Souq Waqif is about 100 plus years old, and it’s a real market,” says Berthold Trenkel, Qatar Tourism’s chief operating officer. “It is still used by the locals. And of course it’s a great tourist attraction while you’re at the square, I would definitely go to one of the restaurants there. You will find lots of cuisines, whether it’s from Iran or from any of the neighboring countries.” 

The Qatari souq is a feast for all five senses. So, let us have a closer look. 

1.- SIGHTS: INSIDE THE LABYRINTH

The covered stalls wind through the bazaar like a maze in which it is easy to get lost. To keep your bearings, pay attention to the wares on offer, which are split up into specialized sections — rugs, fabrics, spices, gold, kitchen utensils and thousands of hidden treasures and antiques. 

During the hottest time of the day, the souq changes completely, plunging into silence as businesses close up until the return of cooler temperatures in the evening. 

However, this is a good time to visit, too. You can wander around the passageways, admiring the architecture and design in a more tranquil setting. 

As the sun sets, the bazaar springs into life. Colorful lights shine from the lanterns and the merchants hawk their wares to the shoppers ambling through the cobbled pathways. 

Among the gems inside the souq are the traditional ‘majlis,’ sitting rooms adorned with cushions, rugs, low tables and backgammon boards, a staple of traditional Qatari pastimes. 

These majlis, which are frequented mainly by men and are listed on Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, offer a refuge in the market to drink tea and coffee, catch up with the latest news and meet up with friends. They are also used for events such as weddings, parties and funerals. 

Towering over the souq is the majestic Fanar Mosque, whose curved architecture spirals up to a minaret reminiscent of a lighthouse. The mosque is one of the main sites in the Qatari capital and can be seen from the Doha Corniche and the museums of Islamic Art and the National Museum Of Qatar. 

2.- AROMA: THE MERCHANTS OF SPICE AND PERFUME

One of the most colorful sites in the winding streets of the market is the spice section, where aromas from the Middle East, India and Iran mingle. Here, stalls sell saffron, dried flowers for tea, dates, curry, and honey. 

The merchants are less forthcoming — although no less proud — of their spice blend, or bezar, recipes. In Qatar, each family makes their blend their own way with a secret recipe handed down the generations. 

At the Souq Waqif spice stalls, you can pick and mix your own flavors — fancy an Iranian tea of cardamom and clove? Just ask. Perhaps an Indian curry with cumin and cinnamon? No problem. The possibilities are endless. 

The souq’s perfume and skin cream stalls throw up a different bouquet of smells with many of the products made to order mixing ingredients such as oud, musk and argan oil, which is known locally as liquid gold. 

3.- TASTE, RESTAURANTS AND STREET FOOD

You can find everything in the Souq Waqif, and food is no exception. Street food, candy, flame grill restaurants, Qatari dishes, Lebanese dishes, Yemeni, Turkish, Iranian — a wealth of options is on offer. 

Why not start with a samosa filled with vegetables, beef or cheese followed by a falafel. The souq also offers traditional “kofta” meatballs with hummus or salad, as well as the regional machboo rice dishes and desserts such as luqaimat, sweet honey dumplings often thought to be the oldest pastry in the world. 

“Qatari food is a lovely experience. It has lots of flavor, lots of spices. Every dish has its own unique recipe. So I think when you try it, they are not the same. So you have to try everything. The fans, when they come to Qatar, should go to the places that provide Qatari food and try this lovely experience,” says prominent Qatari chef Noor Al Mazrooi. 

A ballon seller outside the Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar. EFE/ Alberto Estévez

4.- TOUCH: PEARLS AND GOLD

Pearls played an important role in Qatar’s history. And while the number of intrepid pearl divers operating today are dwindling, there remains a plethora of pearls on offer at the market, most are of pink, white and gray varieties. 

“Pearl fishing was the old way, how the economy was run, maybe, let’s say a hundred years ago,” says Trenkel of Qatar Tourism. “And you had Bedouins who were roaming around the region, but you also had people who had settled and the main way or means of making money was going pearl fishing.”

The invention of synthetic pearls “pretty much wiped out pearl fishing,” he adds. 

“You still can find original pearls from Qatar, but these are very, very expensive.”

Gold is another staple at the heart of the souq, where it is weighed out in front of the customer before it is sold. Even with a limited budget, visitors can buy gold necklaces and bracelets with their name silk-screened in Arabic.

5. SOUNDS: FALCONS AND PETS

An integral part of Qatari culture is the falcon. Not only does its legacy in the nation trace back to the Bedouin tribes, but it is a national symbol and source of pride. Any visitor to the nation will learn this quickly — at the airport you are greeted by an enormous gold statue of a falcon. 

At the Souq Waqif the birds have their own section, the Falcon Souq. 

Here, merchants not only sell breeds such as gyrfalcons, saker falcons and the famous peregrine falcon but also useful bits of kit such as GPS monitors, hoods and cages. 

The area is a must-see on any visit, if only to catch a glimpse of the falcons — and their owners — waiting for a check-up. 

Returning to the souq, the visitor is greeted by chirping as they enter the area of pets. Most of the animals being sold are songbirds, many of which are kept in overcrowded cages, but there are also rabbits, parrots, ducks and tortoises.  EFE

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