“In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority. In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce. Every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge.” – W.B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore
I was born in Doha, Qatar in 1972 at Hamdi Hospital, nicknamed after the notorious Dr Iqbal Hamdy. The story goes the hospital was built in 1959 for tuberculosis but she hijacked the place for her obstetrics and gynecology patients in the early 60s to use as a Maternity Hospital convincing the former Emir Sheikh Ali Al Thani it was more necessary. The beautiful Egyptian doctor is also supposed to have locked up a visiting professor in the lavatory because he’d once failed her in an exam, locked up two male doctors who slept against her orders, and once tied a dead foetus to a woman chasing her around the compound for not attending the ante-natal clinic on a regular basis for check-ups.
Yes, the Doha I was born in is filled with countless such anecdotes. I grew up in Qatar surrounded not just by friends but extended family too. My uncle – dad’s eldest brother – went to Qatar in 1955 and lived in Doha for 56 years before returning to India. He arrived by ship on a journey that took close to four days from Bombay, to work at the British Bank of the Middle East (later acquired by HSBC). His house in Rumaillah came to be the family home – he lived in the same two-storey house for 44 of those years – and it was heartbreaking for us when we heard the place was marked for demolition. It was one of the first places of my childhood to go.
Unlike my uncle, my father went to Qatar in 1969 by a Dakota; the flight from Bombay took six hours with stops in Karachi and Muscat because it needed to refuel. Also unlike him, my father changed 17 houses over 40 years. Every time he ran out of garden space for his vegetables, sometimes after just one season, we moved. Today, not one of the 17 homes I lived in have survived Qatar’s infrastructure development.
Doha in the 1970s
The seven-bedroom house my family moved into, shortly after I was born, in today’s Matar Qadeem (Old Airport Area) is presently occupied by a row of shops and restaurants. I recognize the place only because the electricity transformer and mosque (since renovated) that marked our east and west boundaries still stand.
Doha has changed so dramatically every decade since the 70s that old time residents like myself no longer recognize so much of the city. My father even stopped driving in Doha post 2011 because he didn’t know where he was anymore. And he had started spending more time in India than Qatar only since 2005.
In the 1970s the Matar Qadeem area was a predominantly middle-class Qatari (Irani-Qatari) neighbourhood and we were one of the few Indian families living there. The houses here were made from local limestone and packed mud with mangrove beams for roof. For this house my dad paid QR 280 as monthly rent while he earned QR 5,000. We lived in this house for six years.
The land here was given to these Qataris by the government to build houses in, away from central Doha. (The more upscale areas of Doha in the early 70s were Msheireb and Al Bidda, while Najma was sort of in between. Many of the inhabitants from all these parts later moved to Rayyan, Gharafa and Madinat Khalifa in the late 70s and early 80s.)
My father preferred the Old Airport area because the big house also came with a huge yard he built a warehouse in, that he went on to expand over the years. We also had chicken, a goat, a make-shift aviary housing 140 birds, rescued animals (hare), reptiles (turtle) and bird (peahen) at various points over the years that were moved to Qatari friends’ farms when they needed more space.
A sense of belonging
What I remember most about this house and area though is its sense of community. When Qatari grandmothers went shopping to the souq, they came back with boxes of goodies for children in every family in the neighbourhood. My brother and I usually got a box of Bubbly or jellybeans or Treats they would distribute out of car boots as we kids waited for our turn to receive them.
When our dog would go missing, all the children in the neighbourhood would get together to look for her – she got lost a lot. When it was watermelon season however, the kids would try to steal my dad’s watermelons and we’d stand guard, snitching to their grandmas if they picked our fruit. Weddings in the community (almost always Qatari) were especially fun because we got to run in and out of tents and eat as many sweets as we liked as everybody was too busy taking care of something or the other to bother with what the children did.
We grew up listening to tales narrated by my dad and uncles of how hot Qatar was in the 50s and 60s before the advent of air-conditioners. My uncle, who had fine handwriting, was also tasked with writing bank drafts at work. He would go through many leaves for one draft because sweat would drip down his hand onto the leaf, ink smudged everywhere. He dreaded it, he says, because the leaves were expensive too. My dad’s stories were more romantic. He talked about sleeping under starry skies, waiting to be drenched in sweat, so it would cool them down.
They experienced so much more of old Doha than I did. When my uncle got there in the 50s, they would get their potable water from Bahrain by boat. By the time my dad arrived in the 60s, water wasn’t such a big problem as tankers delivered water to tanks in our yards.
It did get hot in the summer, even in the 70s after we had air-conditioners because there were power cuts quite often. Many a night was spent under candlelit desert skies, listening to stories about ghouls and spirits – stuff that didn’t frighten us because my father told us we were in Allah’s land and were safe from anything that caused harm.
My father was a lawyer at Her Britannic Majesty’s Court from 1969 to 1976. Though the British court officially closed in the early 70s, when Shariah courts took over the handling of cases, the British court was given some time to close all pending cases. By the early 70s my father’s workload as a lawyer was already becoming less. The judges, who were based in Abu Dhabi, came to Qatar once a week to hear cases, giving my father a lot of free time. In 1973 my father started a small food imports company and in 1974 he opened Samco. He next opened a chain of supermarkets and sandwich and juice bars, most named Samco, in and around Doha.
Things did look up when my dad opened branches of Samco in Wakrah towards the end of 1977. A very new township with some villas occupied predominantly by British expatriates, it did have less power outages. So every time we lost power in Doha, we’d get into a pickup truck and head to Wakrah – there was a spare bedroom in the staff housing for us.
We loved the truck rides because we got to sit in the open cargo area. My cousins would join us sometimes after school when drivers had errands to run, and we’d hold on to the bars, belting out songs at the top of our lungs. We were upset when we were told Qatar, in the late 70s, had made it illegal for children to ride in the back of trucks, and even decided, with my older cousins leading the charge, that we could perhaps break the law, but of course my dad’s staff would have none of it.
As legal advisor to the British and Indian Embassies, besides being a businessman, my father hosted many soirees in our backyard. Every other weekend we had people over. My father also had an unlimited alcohol permit; alcohol permits were already hard to come by and an unlimited one, issued to very few people, meant my father felt “obliged” to throw parties also for the community, including “bachelors” (as married men, mostly from the Indian sub-continent, who live in Qatar without their families are referred to today) so people, especially those with no liquor permits, could enjoy a drink or two.
We even had live music at these parties that would often go on till the wee hours of the morning.
In the mid to late 70s, when my family moved to more central neighbourhoods, the wonder of Doha only grew. We continued to explore spaces on our own because Qatar was safe, safe enough for us as children to bicycle in the streets to nearby parks 500 metres away unchaperoned with no threat of being kidnapped, raped or run-over.
Qatar then and now
When the weather was good, weekends were spent at the beach with family and friends. People even today go camping overnight, and one can still build a campfire in the deserts of Qatar without requiring permission from the authorities to do so. We just had more public beaches to visit, and didn’t need to drive out of Doha to do so, especially if friends wanted to pick cockles or go crabbing, we drove to where the Doha Sheraton stands today or to Ras Abu Aboud.
Souq Waqif also resonates with the smells and sounds of my childhood though it felt more real when I was younger, maybe because people from all walks of life had access to it unlike today. Everybody sees single men, almost always from the Indian sub-continent, being refused entry to the souq, and while I can understand the paranoia of being inundated by such an overwhelming majority of “bachelors”, what I feel really sad about is why this particular souq couldn’t be left alone, to be as was.
There are many public spaces for families in Qatar to go to and enjoy in, including those very similar to Souq Waqif that Qatar’s bachelors don’t have access to. Like many old timers and old Qataris feel, for me too the souq lost some of its charm and soul when it was, for want of a better word, gentrified.
Be that as it may, my childhood is filled with tons of incredible memories – every day was an adventure like it should be for any curious child growing up surrounded by a community that nurtures them. We wanted for nothing.
I did not know I was Indian or that my family was Catholic till I moved to India when I was seven – not once was I made to feel different from the others, and I didn’t know I was. It was the same with my family. When we went over to a Qatari house for the occasional weekend family lunch or dinner, we all sat together. The women were never veiled – they treated my father like their brother or son.
Until about seven years ago, after my father started spending more time in India and I would spend Fridays at my uncle’s, one Friday a month was lunch at a Qatari friend’s house. Not much had changed except that I was now a woman in my late 30s. Family lunches still happened at the parents’ house with four generations gathering together for the meal. As there’d be over 20 of us, we’d all sit on an oversized Persian rug. Men and women weren’t separated, nobody was veiled or wore headscarves. I almost always ended up sitting next to somebody older who was unafraid to heap servings onto my plate.
It was 2010, mainly western colleagues at work (VCUQatar then) talked about how very little they knew about Qataris and Qatari families or what a privilege it was to have visited one, and I started to understand what the fuss was all about. Qataris had become exotic in their own land. None of these colleagues experienced the sense of community I did as a child or as an adult though I was a migrant too, like they were.
Memories of Samco
My father opened Samco – Qatar’s first sandwich and juice bar – in 1974 where everything on the menu was created by my father and tried and tested at home. Many of the sandwiches and juices served at the various small juice and sandwich places in Qatar have over the years tried to replicate my dad’s fare.
The Samco supermarkets came shortly after. Samco’s flagship branch was on the airport road, close to where the Teyseer Service Centre today is. My father had to move when Gulf Air (then owned by UAE, Bahrain and Qatar) decided the space was suited better for their main office, so he moved the branch 150 metres to its next and final location (where it is till today as Doha Rocks). The landlords, the Al Suweidi family, to make up for asking my dad to move, told him he could build it as he pleased and was exempted from paying rent for the first year.
Everybody knew Samco. The ruling family, the royalty, the commoner, all came to Samco for their juices and sandwiches. In the 70s royalty were more recognizable as they frequented the place more openly; in the early 2000s, bullet-proof tinted car windows and accompanying security guards set them apart.
In 2005 my dad left Samco to me to run (until I sold it in 2009). It was especially heartwarming for me and the staff every time a young Qatari or expatriate would come to Samco and tell us he had come straight from the airport after being away as a student for a few years, and had missed the famous kheema (minced beef) sandwich or ‘Samco’ (as kids referred to the soft serve ice cream). Just as endearing was seeing young Qatari fathers and mothers bring their children into Samco, telling them they’d been brought as children by their parents to Samco too, some 20 or 30 years ago. I guess it was a rite of passage for them or a special bond they felt to the place.
When Qatari customers came to hear rumours I was selling the place, I had to, for months, listen to them try to dissuade me (not exaggerated), and I went back and forth with my decision too. They offered to partner with me; told me how Samco was part of their weekly ritual, alternating with the Ritz Carlton, Sheraton and Sharq as I was continuously reminded, and very humbled by. After all, it’s not every day one sees customers dining at the Ritz Carlton Doha order Samco ice-cream when at the Ritz and have the hotel pick it up to serve them there (happened a few times). And while these were pleasantly flattering, there were unpleasantly flattering experiences too.
Like the regular customer from Gharafa who would send her driver to pick sandwiches. One day a new driver came to pick sandwiches and wanted to know what was so special about them. Apparently, the previous driver had decided it was not worth the trip to the other end of town and had tried to fool the Qatari grandmother by picking sandwiches from another place claiming they were from Samco. One bite into them and she knew he was lying, and it cost him his job.
When I did sell Samco, the Municipality refused to grant the new owners a license under a new name and insisted Samco be part of any name they kept. I was told, until very recently, by the new management the resistance the flagship branch faced with introducing new items on the menu. The Qatari customers – comprising 90% of the customer base when my father ran the place – would not accept change to Samco.
I believe this is very telling of Qatar today though it doesn’t seem very overt. While it is the sense of community I missed most about Qatar in the last 10 years, this certainly isn’t unique to Qatar. Everybody has probably experienced this “change” in their own cities, and towns and countries. So why did this aspect of Qatar seem so surprising to so many who heard of my experiences? Is it because I was a migrant who experienced this sense of community, while most migrants today don’t? Is it because they know so little about Qatar and Qatari culture?
How has Qatar changed in the last 10 years especially, and how does it affect its residents? What brought about this change? This is what I will examine in part 2 of this post.