Doha Dreaming: Old City Highlights

#1 – Souk Watif

After breakfast, I went out to explore the Souk. At this hour, it’s not quite as hot as I expected, though I expected it stifling. It’s definitely dry, and breezy.

This is old Doha’s main attraction. It’s a reasonably small area, a twisty labyrinth of streets and alleys, lined with small shops, but not in the same way as a market in, say, South America, or Nepal. It’s ordered, and quiet. There’s no touts begging you to buy their alpaca poncho or snow globes. Arched laneways with high thatched ceilings, neither completely indoor or outdoor. Wooden beams protrude from the mud-made walls.

They say that the market has been here for centuries, originally clinging to the waterfront. Indeed, the market’s name “Watif” derives from the Arabic word for “standing”, an activity required due to the regular floods. It wasn’t until the sea-front was reclaimed that permanent structures sprang up, about 250 years ago.

I see old men in maroon waistcoats carting wheelbarrows of purchases for men in glowing white robes, while traditionally uniformed policeman riding atop beautiful white stallions patrol the streets. They needn’t bother – this place is exceptionally ordered and clean. No litter here either: there are sweepers with brooms and pans at every turn. I suspect this is the government’s way to drive down unemployment. There is a distinct lack of people, and especially tourists. I guess that explains why there are so few touts.

The street-side cafés are populated by hookah-smokers, their apple scented water bubbling like kettles. Scents of chai and aniseed fill the air. Moroccan, middle eastern and Persian food abounds, but no street vans. The women wear headscarves, burkas are occasional.

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Shops of specific types seem to gravitate toward each other. I find a spice zone (bags of coloured powders like an apothecary), animals (mainly birds, but also rabbits and tiny turtles), leather goods (gun holsters a specialty), taxidermy, sword-makers, sweets, hardware. After a few hours of happily aimless wandering, I stumbled on the falcon souk.

#2 – The Falcon Souk

Falconry is a national pastime here. Indeed, the country’s carrier, Air Qatar, specifically makes provision for its first-class travellers to bring their falcons.

I found the falcon souk to be a little intimidating. The falcon stores can be best described as an open plan shop, with much of the floor space taken up by a sand-pit. Over the sand, rows of wooden perches have been constructed, and on these perches sit dozens of these sleek birds, each wearing a smart leather cap with a tassel. Men in robes walk between the perches, inspecting the birds for some hidden quality. As much as I would have liked to enter and watch these rituals, the atmosphere was not welcoming. Even as I peered through a window, I felt that I was prying into a personal ritual. Photography felt rude.

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Apart from the stores, one might also come across the Falcon hospital, demonstrating the seriousness with which the Qataris take their birds of prey. Here, I saw several gentlemen casually reclining on outdoor benches, relaxing while their bird stood patiently by, like a trusted spaniel.

Not far from here you might also be lucky enough to find the camel sales. I realise in writing this that one might get the impression that Doha has a rural feel to it. Not so, but it is queer to see a procession of camels loping slowly along the footpath by a heavily congested four-lane highway.

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This highway leads around Doha Bay to the new city, known as West Bay, where absurd skyscrapers congregate like five-year olds playing soccer. There is an attractive waterside promenade from the old city all the way over, known as Al Corniche, and it is from here that my next instalment commences.

(Next Week – Al Corniche, a lack of beer, and the Museum of Islamic Art)

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