By Matteo Gagliardi
In late November last year, I joined a cluster of negotiators, politicians, scientists, researchers, activists, and journalists from all over the world partaking in a Vernian journey to the centre of the earth. Our goal: to reach the United Nations’ 18th annual climate change conference held in Doha, Qatar, located at the crossroads of civilisation in the very centre of the Middle East.
I was, rather fortunately, chosen to take part in a delegation of university students from across Australia, organised by Global Voices, a NGO that sends delegations to various international conferences. This was only the second time Global Voices took a student from UniSA; the first student went to Rio de Janeiro earlier in 2012 for a UN conference on sustainable development.
While I could talk for hours on end about the conference itself, or on climate change, the most remarkable aspect of an opportunity like this is how engrossed you can become in a different culture. It is an experience that seldom arises in life.
This is the experience I had when I visited and dined in a souq (a traditional Arab open-air market) on a warm winter’s night.
After a long day at the UN conference, my group and I would often meander down to the Souq Waqif: the historic market district in the heart of the Qatari capital.
Literally translated as ‘the standing market’, the Souq Waqif is a relic of a bygone era, a symbol of the mercantile life Arabs and Berbers in the region used to lead.
Despite being heavily restored, it remains one of the only places in Doha which served to remind us of what the capital looked like before the Qataris discovered they were sitting on a money-mine of oil and gas reserves and decided to construct ultra-modern, phallic-like skyscrapers to show off their newfound wealth.
A simple walk through the marketplace feels like you’ve delved into a passage straight out of Arabian Nights. Through the strip where the restaurants and shisha lounges were located, I walked past restaurants serving cuisines from all over the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq … take your pick) and some even from the Indian subcontinent, or mixes of all of them.
These cuisines were very heavy on meat, but this didn’t stop my vegetarian friends from enjoying the mezze tradition. Mezze are a selection of small dishes from across the Mediterranean and Middle East and we often ordered hosts of small, yet delicious, meat and pastry dishes, salads and dips (such as hummus, tabbouleh, babaghanoush and fattoush) instead of main meals.
Throughout our time there, I often found myself marvelling at the Islamic architecture which was captivating when illuminated by the night lights. The souq was filled with motifs—on columns, arches, balconies—and spiral patterns, making every building look like a mini palace.
It was the perfect backdrop to smoke shisha tobacco—another pastime for Qataris. After dinner, it was common for the locals to kick their feet up and order tea and a hookah water pipe (which restaurants sold liberally) and toke on the fruity flavoured tobacco.
This was the perfect opportunity to relax and take in the surroundings. I can’t imagine a better way to be immersed in a culture than to sit back and observe it all while digesting an authentic meal and partaking in a soothing activity.
After passing through the restaurant strip, we then turned into the market area—a labyrinthine arrangement of streets and alleyways specked with specialty stalls and shops, selling all sorts of things. There was a bird souq full of falcons (real and fake), and all the accessories falcon connoisseurs may need (falconry is a popular hobby in Qatar, having once been used a means of hunting for the Bedouin people of the region).
Many stalls sold souvenirs such as traditional robes and dresses, papyrus drawings, hookahs and trinkets. But then, at a certain point, an animal souq would appear and take the visit on a surreal turn. Vendors sell all kinds of animals, even rabbits and chicks dyed bright pinks and blues to make them more appealing. Although this part of the tour was difficult for us, it spurred some contemplation about cultures and our differing norms and customs.
Ultimately, this was exactly what my experience at the Souq Waqif was: an eye-opener into another culture, another way of life.
So, when opportunities to travel around the world, such as those offered by Global Voices,arise (and they do, quite often, so read your emails!), remember that they aren’t just there for academic or professional value. They are also opportunities for a cultural experience that you’d otherwise never have.
And the less you know about a certain place, the more it will surprise and charm you with its cultural niceties.