Exploring Doha | An ode to my aunt

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Locals and tourists gather at the Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar, to enjoy a warm cup of flavourful and milky Karak tea and traditional coffee. Photo: Laila Majiet/City Press
Locals and tourists gather at the Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar, to enjoy a warm cup of flavourful and milky Karak tea and traditional coffee. Photo: Laila Majiet/City Press

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The guests had come in their numbers to relish in her travel wonders and hear of the faraway places she had been.

The dining room chairs were barely cold before we dragged her to her room to open her suitcase.

My aunt was barely home for a few short hours, but we were young and excited and knew that she had brought home a trove of treasures and delights from the rich Middle East.

My aunt was well travelled. I don’t believe there was a continent she had not explored.

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Her travel tales were draped in colour, culture and history – the tapestry of the lands she traversed.

So vivid were the stories, I could place myself in these wonderful corners that I was yet to visit.

She travelled to the Middle East more frequently than any other region, having performed Umrah and Hajj several times in her life.

Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to the holy land, Mecca. It can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Hajj, which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar and must be performed at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime, if they are by the financial means to do so.

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Mecca is in western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea. It is the birthplace of the last prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammed.

My lineage can be traced to Saudi Arabia, India and Malaysia. Parts of the globe I am yet to visit.

However, culture and tradition are at the cornerstone of family life and so the ancestral heritage remains alive.

This past week, I was fortunate to be granted the opportunity to explore Doha, Qatar. It borders Saudi Arabia and shares in its cultures, traditions and religious practices.

My eyes welled up with tears so many times during this trip because it was so familiar and yet equally new.

The warm aromatics that waft through the alleys of the souq, the athaan’s sweet melodies echoing between the dazzling high-rise buildings and the men and women clad in traditional attire was comforting.

Walking into any building is a tantalising sensory experience as warm and smoky notes welcome you. It’s the smell of Oud, also known as the “five thousand dollar per pound scent”. The aroma transported me to Eid celebrations back home.

The aroma of oud incense wafts through the alleys and greets you in the foyer of nearly every building. Photo: iStock

The scent is delicious, musky and familiar. It is a common ingredient in perfume, which those who embarked on the Islamic pilgrimage often returned home with in glass bottles adorned with exquisite gold lattice, dripping in opulence.

Oud perfume has become widely available as leading luxury cosmetic brands cash in on the pungent yet pleasing scent.

In the Middle East, it is also known as black gold – a prized ingredient that comes from one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world.

Tea time

Talking about scents, the unmistakably spicy, sweet and refreshing aroma of cardamom is conspicuous in Souq Waqif. Translated to standing market, this souq is the oldest marketplace in the city.

As the golden sunset fades and the cool night emerges, so the marketplace comes alive. Lights adorn every corner, jolly groups occupy every table and shoppers jostle for a bargain. Walking through the narrow alleys is a magical experience.

At these tiny stores you will discover all kinds of products – from traditional glassware to décor, jewellery, juicy dates and other mesmerising Arabic sweets, incense and so much more that you’re likely to return during your stay – as we did for two consecutive nights.

Walking through the narrow alleys of Souq Waqif is a gateway to traditional street life in Doha. Photo: iStock

These winding alleys are the passage to traditional street life.

The floral and fragrant scent of cardamom drew me to a sweet store. Skillfully, the sweet maker mixed cardamom, rose water, saffron, ghee (clarified butter), sugar and nutty jewels of cashews and pistachio. The golden bubbly liquid coated the spoon as he stirred.

Spoonsful of this sugary delight were dropped into adorable pink tins. It was irresistible. I stepped inside the store and the aroma kissed me. A father and son greeted me and were too excited to share more about what they were cooking up. It was halwa and I had to have some.

Bejewelled halwa is a festive sweet, first made popular in Iran. Photo: Laila Majiet

The scorching tin of sweet spicy halwa was dropped into a shopping bag and I walked the souq trying not to burn myself as it cooled down in its container.

Cardamom is not reserved for sweets and pastries. Tea and coffee spiced with cardamom is a must-try when visiting the souq.

As a little girl, I would detest being asked to make karamonk (cardamom) tea for my aunt and parents. They adored this flavourful and milky tea, which was a blend of tea, milk, water, sugar and cardamom, which are boiled together and then simmered over a low flame for maximum flavour. At the age of 31, I had never thought to try it.

But spicy tea is common in Qatar and the inviting aromas made it impossible to pass by. If I had known all those years ago how delightful this tea was, I would have poured myself a cup.

Laughter and conversation are plenty as small and large groups of family and friends enjoy quality time over a good cup of karak tea.

This is a commonly consumed tea in the Gulf region of the Middle

East and is much like the karamonk tea I made as a child.

Karak tea is part of Qatari tradition today and is inspired by Indian and Pakistani homes where this sweet caramel hue tea is enjoyed. Its toasty cardamom and cinnamon notes are simply exquisite.

Served in tiny cups, it packs a punch in the best possible way.

Relish in culinary delights

Qatar is rich in a marvellous array of culinary treats as it is a blended nation with a massive foreign population. The small country is home to 2.8 million people. Only 300 000 of them are Qataris. Majority of foreign nationals working in Qatar are from Pakistan, Palestine, India and the Philippines.

As a result, you’re truly and utterly spoiled for choice when choosing what and where to eat dinner.

Culture

Men clad in pristine white thobes with their ghutrah (head scarf) and agal (cord used to hold down the ghutrah) securely adorning their heads are commonplace in Doha, while women are cloaked in black robes with matching scarves tucking away every strand of hair. These are no ordinary black abayas. They’re adorned with sparkly jewels and threads that elevate the humble abaya to fashion status.

Qatari locals in traditional attire hang out in ol
Qatari locals in traditional attire hang out in old bazaar market Souq Waqif.

These are common sights in my own community in South Africa, especially during religious gatherings and celebrations. I was awash with nostalgia as I walked among people who looked like me, dressed like me (sometimes) and who shared in my cultures and traditions.

With every trip to the Middle East, my aunt would return home with a beautiful black abaya for each of her nieces. In my life, I’ve never had to purchase one for myself having an array to choose from.

This trip to Doha meant I would finally have a unique opportunity to pick out an abaya for myself – almost like a right of passage.

There were so many to choose from – each extraordinary in its own way, from ruffled sleeves to tiered fabric and sparkly jewels dotted in elaborate designs. I stood in amazement but baffled as to how my aunt and mom had picked out the perfect one each time.

Providing for a blended population

Need a pharmacy? The pharmacist is likely a foreign national. Need a doctor? The doctor is likely a foreign national. Every hotel and restaurant is staffed predominantly with foreign nationals.

There’s great harmony between locals and those seeking greener pastures in Qatar. There’s no competition for scarce resources as the locals are exceptionally well taken care of.

Our tour guide, Saleh Abujundy, says Qatari men are given a parcel of land and a home loan of QR1.5 million when they reach adulthood. They are only required to pay back this loan within 35 years, interest free.

Education, healthcare and utilities, including water and electricity, are free for Qataris while foreign nationals pay a nominal fee.

As a South African, one of the starkest comparisons relate to safety, public transport and cleanliness.

Doha is pristine. There are dustbins every few metres. No one litters. If you do, you’ll have a Qatari tap your shoulder to request that you pick up your trash and empty it into the garbage bin.

The regard for the rules is undeniable.

No matter where in Qatar you want to travel to, it’s as easy as hopping onto the Doha Metrolink, an efficient train system, or the local bus service. A single journey costs QR2 (R8.64), regardless of the distance. The card system charges you the fee once you tap out upon arrival at your destination.

Doha
An efficient public transport system will be the order of the day for football revellers coming to Doha for the Fifa World Cup at the end of this year. Photo: iStock

The maximum day fare is QR6 (R25.91).

This public transport system will be used during the 2022 Fifa World Cup Qatar scheduled to take place in November. Private vehicles will not be allowed in the stadium vicinity to reduce traffic congestion.


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Laila Majiet 

Digital Editor

+27 11 713 9001
Laila.Majiet@citypress.co.za
www.citypress.co.za
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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