Substitutions work.

29 Mar

These towers along the main bay of Doha all went up in the last ten years. Qataris are quite used to them and are happy to drive their shiny SUVs through them.

But the Qatari government also understood that people need places to congregate in. To spend leisure time in (there is a lot of it here). On foot.  And not just malls. So they have created two major and hugely successful traditional spaces:  an “old” souk and a sort of waterfront area with galleries, restaurants, and even an amphitheater, called Qatara.

An 80s-90s souk existed where the new one is, but it was too modern and ugly. It was functional, with concrete walls. So they replaced the old modern with the new antique: a labyrinthine souk in the old style, with sand colored, rough walls (actually still concrete beneath the surface treatment). They actually paid the shop owners a subsidy to vacate the premises while the back to the future update happened, then they moved them back in and said, “Proceed!” And they did:

The thing is, people really use the new old souk. It is not just a touristy thing. We were in the minority. People enjoy the personal shopping and the local flavor. Locals enjoy sitting in the nearby restaurants smoking a shisha and gossiping (as I imagine they were doing). In one sense they are tourists in their own land:  they too want to know what it’s like to sit in a souk. I smoked a shisha and did some gossiping too. That thing that has been happening in souks since time immemorial was happening here:  locals and foreigners rub shoulders.  (They don’t in malls.) It was the same with Qatara: in the evening the place was awash in locals promenading with their friends and families. It doesn’t matter that these are ersatz “old centers.” If you look closely at any “authentic” souk, say the gold souk of Istanbul, all its parts have been renovated at one point or another. It has electricity now. All functioning souks are new antiques. By that logic you can just invent one out of whole cloth. If you put the right shops in it and the people really come, you’ve got a souk. Give this a few years and it will be as authentic as any in the Middle East.

This is what is lacking in Abu Dhabi. Man lives not on SUVs and malls alone. If you are inventing whole cities out of the desert, you need to (re)create the traditional spaces too. Otherwise the city never quite comes together.


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