The Thumb in Souq Waqif

I had the opportunity to visit one of the most fascinating places in Doha: The Souk Waqif. This is a traditional market that dates back to centuries ago and offers a glimpse into the rich culture and history of Qatar. Souq Waqif, a labyrinthine market near the city’s waterfront, looks deceptively old.  Built on an ancient market site, Souq Waqif continues to be the social heart of Doha in Qatar.

The first thing that struck me was the architecture of the souk. The buildings are made of mud and stone, and have wooden beams and bamboo poles for support. The roofs are covered with palm leaves, creating a natural shade from the sun. The souk has been restored several times, but it still retains its authentic charm and character.

Centuries ago, Bedouin would bring their sheep, goats and wool here to trade for essentials, and the entire market area has been cleverly redeveloped to look the part of Labryta 19th-century souq, with mud-rendered shops and exposed timber beams, plus some authentic and beautifully restored original Qatari buildings.

Until land was reclaimed along Doha’s waterfront in the 1970s, the waters lapped at the entrance to Souq Waqif, where traders were just as likely to arrive by boat as by camel. The first semi-permanent shops here were built around 250 years ago. Before that, vendors stood and sold their wares from makeshift stalls, as the market often flooded, and it is from this tradition that the souq’s name derives waqif means ‘standing’ in Arabic.

The second thing that impressed me was the variety of goods and services available in the souk. Despite the ongoing gentrification of the area, the chief business of the souq continues unabated, and it remains one of the most traditional marketplaces in the region.

There are shops selling everything from spices, perfumes, textiles, handicrafts, jewelry, antiques, to animals, such as falcons, horses, and camels.

There are also restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and museums. I enjoyed browsing through the colorful stalls and bargaining with the friendly vendors.

Thrift shops selling antiques
Maritime vintage store displaying its wares

The third thing that I loved about the souk was the atmosphere. The souk is always bustling with activity and noise. You can hear the sounds of people chatting, laughing, haggling, and singing. You can smell the aromas of different cuisines, such as Qatari, Lebanese, Indian, and Moroccan. You can see the diversity of people from different backgrounds and cultures, all enjoying the souk experience.

Mounted Heritage Police Officers in traditional 1940s Qatari uniform trot up and down the streets, often stopping their horses from time to time for photos.

Women with mobile food stalls start cooking in a nearby square in the afternoon for evening snacks and meals.


The Thumb

I was walking through the alleys of Souq Waqif casually in the afternoon. Suddenly I noticed a tall, golden structure in the midst of a road full of eateries. I went closer to find it’s the thumb. Yes, it’s The Thumb. The Qatar Museums has installed a new bronze with gold patina art piece by acclaimed French artist César Baldaccini at the heart of Souq Waqif to mark the biggest sporting success in Qatar’s history in February 2019. The Gulf nation defeated four-time winners Japan in the final of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup football tournament held at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

According to the website of Qatar Museums, Le Pouce, in the shape of a giant thumb as it translates directly to English as ‘The Thumb’, is one of its creator’s best-known pieces and a popular example of his tendency to create larger than life experiences. 

César Baldaccini (1921-1998) was born of Italian parents in Marseilles, France. He was an important figure in the French 1960s art movement Noveau Réalisme, emphasizing the use of everyday objects over traditional art materials.

The original cast of the artist’s own thumb was first produced for an exhibition on the theme of hands titled ‘Le Main’ in 1965, in Paris. The artist then made a series of increasingly larger versions of the thumb, scaling-up the smaller model using traditional techniques. The motif of the thumb has since become the most well-known of the artist’s subjects.

The souk is more than just a market. It is a living museum that showcases the heritage and identity of Qatar. It is a place where you can learn, explore, and have fun. It is a place that I will never forget.

13 thoughts on “The Thumb in Souq Waqif

  1. Nilanjana Moitra

    I hope it’s not to show ‘thenga’ to rivals. Jokes apart, the idea of placing such a sculpture in a market is interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I not only saw the Souq Waqif through your eyes but smelt it too. Very well written piece that instills life in a sleepy Mediterranean Market.
    By the way what is the “sporting achievement of Qatar” that warranted showing a “Thenga” to the world? (Hehehehehehe…)

    Liked by 1 person

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