Friday, 17 June 2016

My top 5 favourite things to do for free in Qatar


1.  Wandering the lanes of Souq waqif




My top recommendation for a visitor to Doha is a stroll through the lanes of Qatar's famous souq,  known as one of the best in the middle east.

This renovation of the original, rebuilt on the same site, is actually only around 15 years old, although some of the buildings are original and you'd never spot the ones that aren't as its been done very very authentically.
 

It is the very place where Qatari bedouin would trade their animals, wool other goods and a place where they could buy their essentials.  It is the heart and soul of Doha and although the main street that runs through the souq is characterised by souvenir shops and shisha cafes, exploring the alleyways behind will uncover some real gems... oudh, perfumes, traditional Arabic clothing, pots and pans, scarves, bags, shoes, and oh the spice market, where you can buy every spice, pulse or nut and the best Yemeni honey on the planet!



One of the best alleyways is one devoted to local craftsmen from the region.  All manner of goods are made on site from rugs and jewellery, to handmade lamps, basketweave and pottery.

One of the best shops sells everything you can imagine made from glass which is blown right in front of you.  This alleyway is a true treasure trove - even if you don't buy,  just watching as they display their now rare traditional skill is a treat.



There is a beautiful Arts Centre towards the far end of the main street, where local artists display and demonstrate their artwork, some will paint your portrait as you sit and the centre itself is breathtakingly beautiful.  Full of islamic architecture, Arabic lamps, furniture and relaxing water features.  And it is air conditioned.  So if you need a break from the heat, step inside and take a breather for a few minutes.

On weekends, local ladies come to sell their own homemade produce - all manner of sweet and savoury dishes - some cooked at home such as rice dishes like mandi or biryani and some cooked on site like delicious dough balls in rose water syrup and pancakes with all sorts of fillings.  The aromas are incredible and everything unbelievably cheap.

So when I said its free - you certainly can wander the lanes, breathing in the exotic aromas and taking in the unique experience of a truly thriving Arabic souq, which is frequented by as many locals as tourists for bargains galore.  The Emir has decreed that the rents for shop owners in the souq be kept low to encourage shoppers to keep coming.  You have to haggle of course, but thats all part of the fun.

My favourite thing is to sit in one of the many cafes, order a pot of Moroccan mint tea or the most wonderful Turkish coffee and watch the world go by.  There is always something interesting from the bedouin lady percussionists and singers who walk through the souq drumming and chanting, to the elderly porters with their wheelbarrows dressed in original outfits.  And most days morning and evening, traditional Qatari guards ride through the souq on horseback!

Every nationality, from locals and visitors from the region to tourists around the world.  Groups of young single guys in their thobes and women and girls in abayas, families with excited children, and babies with their eyes wide in wonder at all the colours and sounds.  The richest and the poorest, muslims and non muslims, walk along side by side, sit together smoking shisha enjoying the atmosphere.

If you want to explore the souq even further, venture through to the falcon souq where you can see birds and falconry paraphernalia on sale.  Just past this, you can wander through to the stables where the Arabian horses live and spend a few minutes there, before continuing on to the camel paddock.  Its wonderfully free to explore and as long as you're respectful to the animals, you're most welcome.

One word of warning - avoid the pet souq.  There is an ongoing campaign to improve conditions or get it closed down.  This is the only negative in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience of true traditional Arabia.




2.  Watching traditional Arabic music concerts



Again, in Souq Waqif - every Thursday night and Friday night, starting at 9pm, there is a full free concert of fabulous Arabic music.  Well known artists from the region visit regularly to sing traditional songs, accompanied by the house band.  And the rhythm section of hand drum and tabla players are the absolute best!!

A large crowd is always present, partially segregated between women and families on one side and single men on the other.  However, the area behind is much more free for mixing and mingling and watching the guys in the audience dancing traditional arabic dances.

Yemenis are the strongest presence in the dancing community at these events and when they really get going in formation, its quite a thrilling experience to watch them..... and if you're feeling brave, join in - they're wonderfully warm and welcoming to visitors.


The musical performers come from all corners of the region, from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  They also have big events spread throughout the year such as Eid, and various festivals where they have all sorts of traditional, local and international entertainment including street artists......

traditional music and dance......

camel rides.......


They also set up bedouin tents illustrating desert life as it once was before oil was discovered and modern conveniences swept tradition aside.

There is always something going on..... its fabulous, fascinating and totally free!!


3.  Visiting the Museum of Islamic Art




This is definitely one which should be at the top of the list.  Not just because the artefacts and displays are interesting, but the building itself is a real star.  Built by the same architect as the Louvre Pyramid, I.M Pei, it is a 5 storey marvel which requires time to properly explore and enjoy.

The Museum has a great website which gives up to date information on the latest exhibitions, which constitute the larges selection of Islamic art in the world, drawn from across three continents.  The display halls are gloriously dark and sparse, invoking a real sense of the history of the artefacts and allows the visitor space to learn and absorb.






On the ground floor, there is a great gift shop where you can buy really high quality and beautifully packaged souvenirs and there is a lovely cafe with a great view across the water to the city scape beyond.

A great place to relax and spend a few hours in a cool, calming and peaceful environment, marvelling at the exhibits and even more so the architecture.

There are occasional performances by a string quartet in the grand lobby, regular calligraphy classes and guided tours.







4.  Relaxing in the Museum of Islamic Art park




A beautifully landscaped green space bordered by a long circular promenade which extends around the museum, dotted with palm trees.


On weekends and warm evenings, the park fills with picnicking families and visitors keen to get away from the cities shopping malls and crazy traffic.   The museum park often hosts events such as the hugely popular annual Qatar International Food Festival, which showcases food from around the world.



There is a weekly bazaar on saturdays, with stalls selling everything from local food, to arts and crafts and traditional Arabic clothing.  During the cooler months of the year, there are free outdoor musical performances from jazz bands to chamber orchestras and there are various open air fitness classes throughout the week.

At the end of the promenade there is an outdoor cafe with the most spectacular view across the water to the city centre skyline.  A beautiful setting for morning coffee or to watch the sun go down at the end of an exhausting day.



5.  Going to the camel races




Camel racing in Qatar is big business and is a truly exciting spectacle.  Every Friday from November through to April, visitors are encouraged to visit the race track in Al Shahaniya - about an hour's drive from Doha city.  Camel racing is a traditional Arabic sport but became a professional event in 1972 in Qatar.  Races vary in length from 5km to 10km and there is a mix of adult and young camel races.  

These days, robot jockeys are used, after the participation of child riders was banned in 2004, following the rising number of injuries to the children of expats, mostly from south Asia.  The jockeys are controlled by the camel owners who drive alongside on a parallel track in their land cruisers, using walkie-talkies to control the robots which carry a robotic whip and a walkie-talkie through which the owner can shout encouragement to the camel.

There are many races during a morning and if your arrive early, you can watch them lining up behind the start line as far as the eye can see with their Sudanese or Bangladeshi handlers.  The races start with an explosion of energy, camel legs everywhere, whooping and hollering from the handlers and owners racing off down the track in the land cruisers, children leaning out of the windows to cheer on their camel.


The finish line is also a great spectacle, where the camels gather after the race and where the winner will be showered with saffron over his face and neck - a traditional celebration.  And if you still have time, take a drive around Camel City - the paddocks and stables where the camels and handlers live which sprawls alongside the track for block after block.

If you're lucky, you'll be invited inside to take a look around to see behind the scenes of the life of a racing camel.  See my previous blog for my day in camel heaven!



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