Bagpipes and other surprises from Souq Waqif in Doha

At nearly sundown, we noticed a crowd gathering near the edge of Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar. We walked nearer and realized the group was observing a …. bagpipe band? About 30 men, dressed in the traditional white dishdashas, were lined up in three rows, clutching maroon bagpipes festooned with the Qatari flag. A drum beat started from the back and soon they marched past us, walking the length of the square before stopping and holding a pregnant pause in silence. Then: ‘Dum, dum dum!’ from the drums. And: ‘Screeech!’ from the pipes, followed by a melodic ‘Dun dun dhun dun dah!’ Pipes held aloft, the band played a lively tune while marching on through the narrow winding streets of the souk.

I’ll admit, the sight and sound got this gal a little choked up. I’m one of those people who dearly loves the sound of bagpipes, nostalgic not only for my Ohio college, which boasts of its own pipe band for football games and special occasions, but for a semester abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland, not to mention my own Scottish heritage. The moment in Doha was one of those sweet surprises when travelling when you can’t quite believe you’re seeing what you’re seeing. (Or should I say hearing what you’re hearing?)

In late February, when Kuwait celebrated its National Day, we took advantage of the school and work break for Liam and Wil and opted to travel to Doha for four nights. We spent the first two evenings in a boutique hotel located within the Souq, and then enjoyed a couple of nights at the beachfront Hilton. Doha is only an hour flight away, so it was an easy trip.

Doha recently hosted the World Cup, so many of my readers may have followed some of the hype regarding that event. The city underwent a multi-year renovation and transformation in preparation. Clean, modern and friendly, we found it a fascinating place to visit. The Souq Waqif (meaning ‘market’ and ‘standing,’ referencing the early merchants practice of standing while selling their wares) pre-dates the World Cup flurry of activity. It’s been around for 250 years but the structures we see today are actually the product of a restoration in the early 2000s. A fire destroyed most of the souq in 2003. They rebuilt it using traditional methods so walking through its alleys is like walking back in time.

After checking in, we stepped out our hotel door to begin exploring.

Over the next two days we had a blast wandering through the souq’s streets, drifting in and out of shops, stopping for coffee in street-side cafes, and people watching.

Liam loved the bird and animal souk, which offered song birds for sale as well as small animals like turtles and bunnies. We somehow, disappointinly, missed the falcon souk. (Souks have a reputation for being confusing mazes for a reason!)

So many beautiful things to buy or admire. We chose to purchase a couple small paintings (of camels!), a small brightly-painted plaster of a doorway from one of the art studios, and a few small souvenirs that a few of you may receive from us next Christmas. The shops are located both inside covered areas as well as outside lining pedestrian-only streets.

The Souq Waquif Art Center was open so we walked in. Filled with galleries displaying Islamic and Middle Eastern art, the star of the show was the building itself, featuring soaring ceilings dripping with brightly-colored lanterns.

We also strolled through the gold souk, an enclosed market with shops inside selling extravagant necklaces and earrings. We browsed but made no purchases. I loved the building’s architecture and the intricate tile throughout.

After admiring them in the afternoon, we entered a rug shop in the evening and made a couple purchases of small rugs. The salesmen patiently flipped through piles of rugs so we could pick out just the right one, convincing us in the end to purchase more than one (“special price for you!”). Wil enjoyed haggling over the prices and we both appreciated the strong tea they served us.

We didn’t go inside, but the Sheik Abdullah Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Center was lovely to view from afar, during the day:

And at night:

And yes, that is a child on a camel in the image above. We did not put Liam on a camel, but camel riding was one of several child-friendly activities at the souk. There were lots of helium balloons for sale, a low-tech child’s train made of oil barrels and pulled by a moped, not to mention the joy many children seemed to get from running through flocks of pigeons and scattering them across the square.

The souq was vibrant at night, brightly lit and crowded with diners and shoppers.

We ate dinner both nights at restaurants in the souk. The first night, we ate at ground level, dipping warm pita into hummus, baba ganoush and moutabel as our appetizer, followed by succulent lamb chops, while watching the crowds walk past. For our second night, we dined on a second-story patio and had fantastic views of the entire city.

Souk Waqif had a few more surprises for us (beyond the pipe band returning for our second night.) The weekend we were there, it also hosted an Equestrian Festival, which was free to enter. They had set up stands and a field for the horses. We only watched for a little while, where they seemed to be judging the horses’ appearance.

In honor of Kuwait Day, there was a celebration just below our hotel, with traditional sword dancing accompanied by drums and poetry performed by Kuwaiti men under giant posters of the Kuwaiti Emir and Qatari Emir. (The Emir portrait is a common sight in Kuwait but unexpected while we were in Qatar.) We watched from one of our hotel’s balconies and appreciated a bird’s eye view of the festivities. Another jewel for our Arabian nights in a souk full of surprises.

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