Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Anzac Day in Doha. We had thought we should turn out for the dawn parade organised by kiwi and aussie expats, but after another week of 5am starts, sleep got the better of us. Sorry, we promise to try to be more patriotic next year. As it did turn out, we were fortunate to catch a local celebration of a history no less revered.

There were other half-formed plans for the day: having visited the camel racing track (at Al Shehaniyah, 40km west along the Dukhan road that continues on from Khalifa St) twice in the previous two weeks, at times we were unreliably informed there would be some racing to see, we were still sort of keen to make it to the final of the Emir's Cup event, which was definitely today according to two out of three sources.

Both previous visits involved numerous phone calls to various numbers either from the guidebooks, or suggested by the people at those numbers, with conflicting and inconclusive results; and an eventual resolve to just get on out there and see what's happening. This in turn involved rounding up various apartment dwellers who had expressed an interest in going, but either slept in or got roped into other weekend expeditions.
The result was arriving like typical expats too late in the day, as far as we could tell, for any racing that might have been on - a few teams training was all there was to be seen.

On the first trip we were able to drive right inside the track and around the dusty road that follows the inner fence of the approx 5km circuit, on which owners follow their steeds in 4wheel drives during races, operating the robot jockeys by radio.

Until a few years ago young boys were used as jockeys, but the Emir has now outlawed this dangerous exploitation and instead there are the robots with mechanical whips like these.

So, having hooned around the track egging on imaginary favourites, and passed a jolly half hour with the friendly camel wranglers, we left for greener pastures as the last few gallopers headed back to the corral past the empty grandstand.

On the second occasion there were security guards on the gate to the inside track area, who had no clear word as to whether there would be any more racing that day ("Come back Monday 6am" - yeah right). A frightfully English family was determinedly enjoying a jolly picnic in the (once again otherwise completely empty) grandstand, a lone beast sprinted down the home straight and into the holding yard to be deftly caught by a handler, and in the carpark by the winning post, a hundred or more brand new Land Cruisers - the prizes - waited in rows. We couldn't quite manage Monday 6am, but it's in the 'get up early next year' file alongside the Anzac thing.

Meanwhile, what could be more enticing for an aimless Anzac afternoon than spot of powerboat grand prix?

We battled the traffic, found ourselves a spot among the limos in the Sheraton car park, and trekked down to the corniche and right into the nice shady free grandstand (with esky of free iced water bottles parked in every aisle) and a perfect view of all the action on most of the approx 12km course around Doha bay. A dozen totally insane boats, twenty-one laps of pure noise in the heat of the afternoon, choppers doing low passes filming the race, you couldn't help getting caught up - especially with the likes of kiwi throttleman Peter "Muddy" McGrath of the Maritimo Australia team to barrack for (they came nowhere though).

This is Qatar 96, which came in second,

behind Fazza from Dubai. This was only round one of the world powerboat championship, so there is unfinished business out there on the water.

After a brief and very civilised winners' presentation (no champagne spraying here!),

that appeared to be it. We wandered back past the bouncy castles and team transports and into the other, historical, side of the Qatar Marine Festival. Up till very recently, Qataris eked out a subsistence as fishermen and pearl divers. With the advent of petrochemical revenues in the 50s and of cheap cultured pearls a decade or two later, everything changed. But many of the old pearl divers are still around, and here were a couple of them, showing us how it used to be. Nancy, Angela and Morag got themselves ringside seats.

I'm sorry I didn't get the old guy's name, but by the end of the captivating session he was a friend of us all.

See here the net bag (al deyeen), hung round the diver's neck to collect the oysters;

the tortoiseshell nose clip (al fetam);

and the stone weight (al kher), released by the diver when he achieved the required depth.

Maybe this one...

Meanwhile, his mate alongside kept on weaving his net;

and over beyond the nearby carpet square something else was happening. A group of men gathered, a drumbeat started up

and dudes ran around setting up mikes and a length of rope.

Then a procession wound its way onto the carpet

and the song-and-dance began. That's the singer standing at right holding the mike.

It went on for a good ten minutes, sometimes sitting, sometimes soloing, obviously telling a story. This is just one chapter (watch for the guy leaping near the end):

We asked the old pearl diver what it was all about. Yes, in the video above they are paddling the boat. There were tears in his eyes.

He got up for a closer look, stood lost on thought for a while, then got out the smallest digital camera I ever saw and was snapping away with the rest of us.

Then he was back on the mat again showing the kids his trade,

while the West Bay towers looked on like curious giants.

This guy and his mates offered us Arabian coffee and conversation,

and the sun set on what Nancy rightly called a serendipitous day,

which however wasn't quite over yet - we wandered back to the Sheraton and inside its stunning pyramidal atrium for shopping and more coffee, then high tailed it down to the gold souqs to order some bling, but that has to be another story, eh.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

District 34 Streetscape

Here's a quickly-thrown-together gallery of scenes and storefronts taken on a quiet sunny afternoon in Madinat Khalifa South, our Doha District 34 neighbourhood; scenes we have become used to being part of on daily walks round the corner for fresh supplies of milk or fruit for a good price, without the pressures of a trip to the mall.

This is Zaid bin Wahb St from our corner.

Al Muhannadi Chickens is the first shop you come to.

Still haven't been in to choose a bird to be woken from its siesta and meet its fate...dunno if they sell eggs too.

A few doors along is the takeway shop - as earlier reported, they are indeed tasty, and I can't say it wasn't some leftovers from our fridge that caused me suffering...

This is the other side of what is really our local main shopping street, Thabit bin Qais.

Which includes a ladies' tailor, a greengrocer, a butchery, an Arab bakery, three small grocery shops more like a NZ dairy (there are another dozen or more others scattered around the surrounding streets), and the Madinat Khalifa International Communications Centre. A shop markets itself by its good name here.

This is sort of MK South CBD central - the corner of Thabit bin Qais looking down Fidaa St where all the building and electrical supplies stores are, with the mosque out of shot behind us, the streetcorner rubbish bin not wanting to be left out (we have one on our corner of course; I'm getting to know some of its cats but they aren't about to trust me just yet).

And this is looking back down TbQ St.

Just around the corner is this useful supplier. I presume the readymades are garments.

This barber (all the hairdressers, mens or ladies, are called saloons) isn't the one I got my haircut at. There are at least ten more in the vicinity, as well as several more in Souk Al Ali beyond Gharrafa junction, and I just went for the nearest to the apartment in case it became necessary to creep back home hiding a shameful basin-cut or unasked-for shave. In fact, the excellent service was I'm sure the equal of that provided by any other local establishment: a full 45 minutes for QR25, including scalp and neck massage (crack! ouch) and super-pernickety trimming, and no jokey banter - it's a serious business (and not much English spoken anyway).

Further afield (i.e. four or five streets away) a greater variety of traders vie for your commerce; this is just one of a legion of Trading and Contracting (or similar) Companies large and mostly small to be found all over Doha. I guess you know you need one when you need one.

The New Book Shop looks to have seen better days.

Beware the flying fists of sanitaryware!

Here you can see the Corner Butchery which isn't on the corner.

The New Pluto is marginally larger than the little grocery shops, but does resemble a supermarket in that it stocks more brands of otherwise identical tinned goods than them.

It's just a few doors from No-Rules Intersection (which I posted a video of earlier, not realising that it was indeed located just a few blocks from us). Here it is, captured in a rare moment with no traffic.

From here we can walk straight home up Al Tadamun St, past another fine eating establishment and yet another grocery (many here are called Cold Stores),

and another view of Thabit bin Qais.

Close to home is an apparent family empire (Darko Trading and Construction, and Darko Al Modern Grocery)

and a corner of old Doha which may be awaiting redevelopment, or may decide not to wait for the wrecker's ball.

And here we are back home near our shiny new apartment, as the workers return for the afternoon shift.

I hope you enjoyed this little tour of the 'hood, intended to give a flavour of everyday reality here; though to truly reflect that, I want to go back later in the day and snap a few smiling (mainly Indian) faces. It ain't all souqs and and supermodern development projects, though there's plenty more of that to report on in weeks to come. To appreciate this place you have to breathe a bit of desert air looking for the camel racetrack and get your feet dusty getting lost in the backstreets, as well as joining the traffic ratrace and enjoying the world-class museums, magnificent stadiums, designer boutiques, and more or less expensive restaurants. I still find both sides of Qatar equally fascinating.

We promise to continue our untiring (well, sometimes quite tiring) efforts to experience all of this and more on your behalf and share some of the fascination.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Que and Kerosine at Souq Waqif

It's Friday night - come with us and half of Doha to hang out at the souqs (the other half are at the shopping malls).

Still hunting for that bargain desk? This is the time to check out the second hand furniture markets, a few blocks uptown from the main souq district, if you can find your way there. When you haven't yet compiled your mental map of Doha landmarks and their relative positions, it's easy to lose your way in the maze of similar-looking and similarly-named streets.

But here we are, having somehow found a parking place nearby. Normally quiet most days of the week, tonight the alleys of traders' shops are jammed with bargain hunters, almost jumping on the back of the trucks bringing more stuff.

Every few minutes an eager indian guy will buttonhole you offering carrier services to get your furniture back to your apartment - well worthwhile striking a deal if you have bought something, but if not it can all be a bit much after a while. Time to leave the chaos and maybe come back on a weekday morning, and find a trader ready to do a deal on a quiet day. Most traders specialise to some degree - if you want a good price on a fridge and chandelier package, here's the guy to go to.

On the way back to the car the dozens of furniture shops lining the streets of this district offer distractions - but today we'll save our money and resist the tempting offer on this throne and other wares the shopmen just know we want.

As dusk gathers we do battle with the traffic again in time to queue up and steal a spot in the souqs parking area (though there is usually space to spare on one of the empty lots within five minutes' walk).

While it's still light, let's take a ten minute walk (take care crossing Ali bin Abdullah St) to the souqs beyond - there's more in these few blocks than you can possibly check out in a day or an evening, so every visit can turn up a new set of previously-unseen shops and maybe the elusive goodies you are after.

Here, there are crowds of Indian workers looking for some Friday night action, but Friday night is Family Night and they are barred from the Corniche, Souq Waqif and many other public areas, moved on insistently by lone policemen shouting and waving batons. So with nowhere else to go, they congregate in the streets.

It's all very polite and good-natured, of course, though we did see two guys fighting once. This shopkeeper wasn't best pleased about people sitting on his doorstep and affecting trade, but I'm sure the piece of 4x2 was only for effect.

Just a normal laid-back night out in town hanging out with your mates and getting moved on repeatedly.

One building the hapless Indians do seem to be allowed into is Souq al Najada, which houses a square of aisles each about 100metres long, with dozens of shops specialising mainly in mobile phones and services, with variations on computers and other consumer electronics, including of course the ubiquitous watches.

Here they can spend a happy evening five-deep at the counter, assessing the relative merits of the latest mobile technology, which is of course the number one requirement for life in Doha at least as much as elsewhere.

Other essential technology has its place in neighbouring souqs, among the endless alleys of fabric shops, where the choice of materials is endless and dazzling and bold, but realistic bargaining will always get you a better deal.

But sooner or later you'll probably need to return to the treasure chest to rub the lamp again; no problem.

We choose to enter Souq Waqif via the arcade of art galleries, relatively free of crowds even on a Friday night.

They're all out the door down the far end, enjoying an alfresco coffee and perhaps a sheesha pipe (you choose the flavour from a menu, a waiter brings the pipe and tops up the glowing coals, the mouthpiece as well as the water in the pipe is shared by all...) on the expansive concourse of the souq proper. Waqif is said to mean 'the standing souq' - historically it was the only market here, and traders and customers alike would stand all day in the hot sun rather than sitting down, such was the hectic pace of business; times have changed, with most people happy to sit all night, though the pace of commerce in Qatar hasn't slowed.

There's still plenty of shopping to be done if you're keen - more here than anywhere else. Waqif is a bit of a Tardis - there really doesn't seem to be enough room within the rambling perimeter of the beautifully re-created traditional buildings for all the uncountable and unmapppable alleys and corridors, jampacked with jostling little storefronts. You can search in vain over several visits for the shop where you bought that coffee pot, only to stumble on it the next time, after giving up.

Everything is here (except perhaps furniture, and electronics en masse); there are more fabric shops if Africa still has any remaining supply problem (though some very nice African goods are on sale too); one corner has dozens of sellers of spices and beans and bags of rice;

and there are several alleys devoted to birds and other pets (we saw a cage of the famous multicoloured dyed baby chickens only once, notably just before Easter, although that festival isn't celebrated here).

There's plenty of cheap rubbish no different to what you can find in markets and $2 shops the world over, but also some Aladdin's caves of second-hand treasure.

Pleasingly, there isn't a huge Qatar souvenir industry, though it may be starting to appear - if you look twice, there are rather more ornamental camels than you can shake a stick at, some rather silly and some very nice. For a price you can buy a charming plaster model of a notable or typical Qatar building in a display case, or a handmade musical instrument, or for not too much, a national flag or scarf.

You can watch this guy make a multicoloured bangle to your design while you wait. There's jewellery, fine rugs, hardware of all descriptions (including the biggest cooking pans you ever saw), and in the next door building, falcons, which in the hunting season can change hands for hundreds of thousands of riyals.

Having bought all you want or run out of credit card, you can engage not this guy (the donkey is for kids to ride on only), but a smiling man with a wheelbarrow lined with sacks, to transport your loot back to the car (sorry no pix, will slot one in later).

Shopping is of course thirsty work, and refreshment is long overdue. We could go upmarket (the restaurant this leads to is equally splendid);

but more irresistible is settling down at a table next to where the musicians are warming up, in full view of the spiral magnificence of the Fanar Islamic Cultural Centre, and enjoying the family atmosphere of a balmy Friday night right in the middle of Doha.

It pays to arrive earlyish to be sure of a table not too close to the PA system, and because it may take a while for one of the few waiters to get to you and return with your order. But the food (kebabs, chickpeas etc) is cheap and tasty (take our word for it);

Not to mention the juices.

We weren't game to try the lavaud kerosine, but were brave enough to inquire and were informed it's avocado. As for Que, it's the juice of a smallish fruit with brown fur and green flesh. Yeah right, no worries. But Limon (served minted in the local style) is a reliably refreshing favourite, and I liked my Fruit Collection (stripey).

At last after much tuning up, the band (six drummers, several oud players, a singer and a flautist) start to play. Despite the modern amplification, it sounds very traditional. We don't know what the songs are about, could well be the failed date crop or the unfaithful camel, or equally likely the inconstancy of petrochemical shares. Each number builds up to a chorus underscored by high-speed clapping from several of the players, and gets a big round of applause from the audience, some seated mixed like us at the tables, others in separate areas for men and women, one each side of the stage.

If we didn't have a home to go to, we would rather like to be able to stay at the exclusive and beautiful Hotel Souq Waqif just around the corner.

But we do have a home and are tired, so with a last ponder over the sheesha pipes for sale (don't even think of trying to bring one home to NZ in your luggage) , we head for the car, leaving the good citizens and a few expats and tourists with more stamina to party on. It's chaos in the car park as even more people are arriving, and out on the roads the driving is even hairier than usual.

But, Insh'allah, we'll probably be back next week for more fun and bargains, if not before.