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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The new old souk

Doha used to have an old souk Souk Waqif. However, times move on, and it was decided that progress required knocking it down and replacing it with a new souk that looks like an old souk.

I went to the new old souk (also known by more cultured people as Souk Waqif) prepared to sneer and came away impressed. In previous, brief, visits I had seen a lot of tourist tat, but a deeper look revealed that this was only a small part of the souk.

What it’s famous for (in Qatar, anyway) is its dried herbs and spices, and in some areas the air wafts with the scent of them. Incense that looks like rocks is arranged alongside the herbs, lending themselves to the array of colours that make these shops so attractive.

However, there’s a lot mA picture of a veiled Qatari lady adorns a shop signore to Souk Waqif than just herbs. This is a huge and maze-like complex. It’s not finished, either, and men in white turbans wheel barrows of concrete and rubble past you as you make your way through windy streets.

Colourful Indian dresses hang the walls outside the shops, or you can choose material for a tailor to turn into a dress. The traditional Qatari clothing is also available: white for men, black for women. You’ll see Qataris shopping here – a couple of middle aged ladies, covered head to toe in black, were briefly alarmed by my camera, before I assured them I was photographing the souk and not them.

Both antiques and replicas are available here, along with old photos of Qatar and its culture. These included traders haggling over piles of pearls, pearl divers being hauled up by their handlers and Bedouin nomads in their traditional camps or alongside their camels.

Feel tired, and you can relax in a traditional coffee shop, lounging on the cushions Antiques sit out side a souk shopwith a Turkish coffee and a Shisha and watching the passer-bys or admiring the old pictures. I was expecting this to be expensive, but the coffee, served in the traditional manner, only set me back three riyals (less than a dollar) – a quarter of the price of Starbucks.

The highlight of this trip came as I was walking back to my car along the edges of the souk. I suddenly came across rows of falcons, eyes blinkered with ornate hoods, perched on wood above spotless sands. These were not the small timid birds you can buy for three hundred riyals in the bird market, but big proud fierce creatures used to being treated with respect. The shop owner graciously allowed me to photo and film his birds.

Being British, I prefer something old to something new pretending to be old, and dislike the Qatari method of ‘preservation’ i.e. knocking things down and rebuilding them from scratch. But, unlike some of the forts in Qatar, Souk Waqif has been revamped with taste and style, and it is well worth a visit. In fact, I’ll probably go back next week for another one of those Turkish coffees...

Also see:

The Gold Souk

Pearl diving

Qatar Visitor Bookstore

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