It’s a startling experience to emerge from an underground, state-of-the-art parking garage full of Lexus and BMW’s, to a lot full of camels! In the Middle East, old and new have a tendency to rub shoulders.
My favourite place to visit in Doha was perhaps the souq. Historically, the souq is where all trade took place. The gold souq, the falcon souq, the spice souq. Because Qatar’s sandstone buildings did not withstand the ages, the ‘old’ souq here is new. It has been build to resemble a historic one with dark ceiling beams and narrow passages. It feels, sounds and smells wonderful. Indian traders offer anything from plastic sandals to glittering cloth to pots large enough to hold an entire goat.
At night, after dark, the souq is alive with people milling about, buying things, smoking a water pipe, sipping coffee. I love how safe it is here. Many of my North American friends say “Be careful going there!” but I feel safe knowing that people do not steal, do not carry guns and do not harass women. I can walk down dark alleys with no problem at all.
One of my favourite parts was the falcon souq. Falcons are an important part of Qatar’s heritage. These birds are highly skilled and trained, costing up to a million dollars! The souq is next to the Falcon Hospital…no kidding. Falcon trainers walk around with a hooded bird perched on their gloved fist. These birds can travel in the cabin of airplanes on Qatar Airways and even have their own ‘passport’ with inoculations etc. listed.
Next to this new/old souq is Katara: a beautiful part of downtown dedicated to culture. Besides the mosque is a gorgeous marble amphitheatre, a pigeon tower, and buildings housing cultural workshops.
I worked in 5 international schools in Doha, all beautiful buildings with lovely students from many countries, many of them second language learners. One boy in Grade 5 told me he speaks 5 languages…
Did you know that the weekend in the Middle East is on Friday and Saturday? On Friday many people attend a sermon in the mosque, then have family time to do things together. Stores are often closed on Friday. It takes a bit of getting used to going back to work or school on Sunday!
One day we visited Sheikh Faizal’s Museum outside the city. What a fascinating place. Apparently the Sheikh was a hoarder. He collected things that made sense, but also a lot of things that made no sense at all. I kept wondering if his wife/wives despaired at his tendency to collect stuff. At some point, he simply had a colossal building build to house all of his stuff: a huge collection of ’50 and ’60 American cars. Matchboxes. Coins. Boats.
However, some of his stuff is allowing an important part of Qatar’s history to be preserved, perhaps not because he meant to preserve it but simply because he collected it. The museum has a room full of dinosaur bones and fossils (pretty special in the Middle East).
There is a room dedicated to the first medical doctor in Doha, a female! Complete with all of her tools, even a rare wooden bicycle ambulance.
I was floored to see rooms on world religions, including Jewish prayer shawls and a Roman Catholic confession stand. There were endless rooms of breathtaking carpets, one woven with real gold. A collection of Qur’ans including the world’s smallest Qur’an, a tiny square inch.
The museum is now serving as a practise ground for students studying museum sciences. Display cases are being build, Middle Eastern clothing and jewelry is being displayed, carpets are being protected. It feels like order is slowly turning the chaos of piles of stuff into a fascinating museum collection. A great place to visit if you want to see Arabian heritage.
A much more traditional, established museum is Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art. Its art collection includes Middle Eastern ceramics, jewels, scripts, calligraphy. A visiting display, this time, shared China’s terra cotta warriors with Qatar residents. But what really caught my interest, was the building itself. Amazing architecture has the outside top of the building resemble a woman’s traditional Qatari face mask. The inside of the building was equally impressive with its gleaming marble and intriguing lines, mirrored in the water.
If you have time to spend in Qatar, be sure to take a desert excursion. These are available for half or full days but also overnight trips. To sleep under the starry sky in the desert, in a Bedouin camp, is a wonderful experience, complete with camel rides and dune buggies. A tour company will pick you up at your hotel. However, Qatar is not cheap. In the old souq there can be a little bit of bartering, but prices of restaurant meals, groceries, clothing, souvenirs and tours are high.