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.


  1. Best post yet! This is absolutely what I signed up for.

    Nice mix of comedy, pictures and description. Almost feels like I'm there.

  2. Looks amazing!! Wish I could visit and go shopping too. I agree with Slag - nice mix.

  3. I love the tour of Doha, just one thing, where are the women? Angela was the only visible one!

    Love your work.