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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Doha's sprawling souq enters the modern age

The Life: Kevin Brass discovers a market is filled with surprises where bargains can be found
DOHA, QATAR - March 25: A man at the Old Souq or Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar, on March 25, 2008. (Randi Sokoloff / The National)
DOHA, QATAR - March 25: A man at the Old Souq or Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar, on March 25, 2008. (Randi Sokoloff / The National)

For a business traveller in Doha, the sprawling old market, Souq Waqif, a fusion of sights and smells, provides a welcome break.

Although it has been rebuilt and renovated over the years, the souq still captures the ambiance of the market where bedouins once gathered to buy and sell their wares. Today the market combines the traditional and modern, a symbol of the different influences shaping Qatar's capital.

The souq is located a few metres off the corniche in downtown Doha, far removed from the modern towers that are reshaping the skyline. It is also a short walk from the Museum of Islamic Art, another one of Doha's other primary tourist attractions.

The market is a maze of narrow cement walkways, lined with stone walls and shops offering everything from ordinary household goods to the bizarre. The aromas of herbs, spices, incense and perfume mingle in the air as tourists shop for souvenir scarves and trinkets that refer to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar.

The souq is the place to find a deal on a handmade rug or questionably antique silver jewellery to bring home to friends and relatives who couldn't make the trip. Haggling is expected and an art form, a challenge against shopkeepers who have been bartering over goods for generations.

Lonely Planet refers to the "slight Disneyfication" of the souq, the undeniable theme park element that has invaded the atmosphere. It's Lawrence of Arabia meets Dunkin' Donuts, thanks to a row of modern chains and coffee shops in one section of the market.

But the commercialisation does not destroy the authentic charm, the market's cultural roots.

Many Qataris do their daily shopping at the souq, aided by old men with rickety wheelbarrows who stand by to shuttle purchased goods to luxury cars.

Wandering the narrow alleys produces surprises and discoveries. One section is devoted to exotic pets, a menagerie of birds, snakes, turtles, rabbits and other creatures from around the world.

At night the souq is still the gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. Teenage boys display their hooded falcons and women prepare traditional dishes, while old men smoke shisha and discuss the news of the day at outdoor cafes, much like they did hundreds of years ago.

 

kbrass@thenational.ae