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!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Camel heaven part 2: Pass me the 'Head and Shoulders'

After spending some time at the races, we jumped into the car and followed behind Mohammed Islam in his pick-up, as he headed towards his stables.  It really is an entire Camel city in the middle of the desert.  Row after row, block after block, dusty alley after dusty alley of stables for the camels, grand gated homes and palaces for the owners and not so grand accommodation for the trainers and handlers.

We parked up outside and followed Mohammed into the yard and he showed us around.  There were various different areas - one for feeding, one for washing, a stable for the older camels, and an area where a group of camels were tied to posts and hooded to prevent them fighting.   There was one retired racing camel in a pen immediately on the left as we entered.  After having a quick look around, we were invited to hop on for a short ride around the yard.  

Ive ridden a camel before, but he was tall! Really tall, and as anyone whose ridden a camel knows, the action of a camel getting to its feet can be an interesting experience and no amount of squeezing of the thighs or tightening of the core can prepare you sufficiently to hold on.  Maybe it was his age or he just wasn't in the mood but he needed a little encouragement and told us all with a loud gurgling bellow that he was retired for a reason and would rather rest.

Mohammed and his colleagues were lovely, allowing us to explore the stables and spend time with the young camels as they returned from the races, led in by the adult camels.  Their first stop was at the feeding station.  There were bales and bales of a fresh green plant being rinsed by stable hands and then placed into mesh troughs.  We stood beside the camels as they ate and listened to the lovely chewing noise as they tucked into the juicy shoots.  The young ones continued to drift in and all lined up in their different coloured coats, they looked a pretty picture.

Mohammed then led us around to the other side of the paddock where there were a number of adult camels tied to posts with strange hoods which he explained were there to prevent them fighting and biting each other.  We started to notice a number of scars of similar lengths especially at the top of their legs which we were curious about.

Maybe it was the whip of the robot jockeys but they were too low for that, or maybe where they'd been fighting but they were too uniform for that.  Mohammed explained that branding was a traditional remedy for many health problems.  It looked quite extreme and disturbing but Mohammed assured us it was quite normal!

More and more camels started arriving back and rotated in groups around the green feed, the water station, where they stood around a large tub and slurped and sucked at the water in unison and then they were fed a large round sticky date ball which they appeared to love the most and nuzzled the handlers for more.

There was only one thing left ..... a shower.  We were told this wasn't their normal bathing day but they would send one to the 'camel-wash' just for us.  One young camel was chosen but it seemed the others didn't want to be left out so we had four lined up, all anticipating the feeling of the tepid water on their hot coats.  The temperature now was well into the upper 30s.

We spotted that they were using none other than 'Head and Shoulders' shampoo, which seemed out of step with the parts of the camels body on which they appeared to be focused - namely the hind quarters!   One of the handlers sprayed with the hose, aiming mainly under the tail, while the other scrubbed the back legs and buttocks (of the camels!) with a rough cloth.

I heard more slurping behind me and noticed another 4 lined up awaiting their turn.  They did appear to rather enjoy it after the initial shock, and rather amusingly shook themselves like dogs afterwards from head to tail.  Although this was a little ineffective,  as they were all so closely cropped and didn't have much of a coat to shake!

Well, we felt incredibly privileged to have witnessed feeding time, drinking time and bath time for the camels and were so grateful to Mohammed for the time he had taken to show us around, we felt our time must be up.

The owner and his young sons arrived, all dressed in their pristine white thobes but stained in the saffron dye which is thrown over the winning camel's face and neck in celebration.  They were curious to see us there but just as welcoming and delighted to talk to us and show us around as Mohammed had been.

It seemed our time in camel heaven was far from over yet!