First memories:

Qatar’s ever charming neighbourhoods 

In a special three-part series, award-winning author, social and human rights activist and one Qatar’s change-makers, Shaima Al Sultan, shares her childhood memories of the country before its incredible transformation.

When we were young, the world to us was as far as where our bicycles would go. We would ride around the neighbourhoods in Qatar, and although the old cracked streets needed renovation, we would still cycle across them as if they were testing us.

My first memory takes me to my family hometown Al Dafna — an elegant seaside district in the Qatari capital Doha full of replicated white houses, juxtaposed with vibrant coloured trees. Surrounding them was a street, a mosque and my school, Garnata elementary school. Back then, we would get ready for school by dressing in our grey school uniforms, black shoes, laced-up socks, and our mothers would braid our hair and tie them back with white ribbons. From the windows of our classrooms we would hear the muezzin’s call to prayer, this was also an indication that the school day was over. We would rush to meet our parents at the gate as they welcome us and take us home to play.

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My grandmother’s house was located on the other side of Doha, in Fareej bin Omran — an amazing and vibrant neighbourhood that bustled with life and never-ending stories. Here, every single day was like a weekend. A large Sidra tree greeted us at the door of our grandmother’s house. We would climb up the tree like little monkeys to pick out the fruit or sometimes to simply hide and watch the neighbourhood as people go by their day.

Each house had its own bench outside and we would sit on one of them to watch the youth of Al-Fareej play football in the open and empty spaces in front of the houses. The football team used two rocks placed two metres away from each other to create the goal. After the placements are done, the game begins and the excitement rises as do peoples voices.

Friday mornings were always my favourite. My grandmother would prepare tea with milk and sugar, chapati bread and kima from Hamood Coffee — a favourite — along with cheese and melon jam for breakfast. In the afternoon, we would go to the supermarket near the house then make our way to the small public park that was open for the Al-Fareej area. The park had simple toys and games but we kept playing until the late afternoon when we got tired and slept in the car the whole way back to our homes. This was the end of our weekends back then.

It was a big decision for us to move from Al Dafna to Al Hilal which is located in the heart of Doha city. In our new neighbourhood our education became more advanced too. The weekend was now two days instead of one, making playtime longer on Thursdays and Fridays which later turned into Fridays and Saturdays.

On cool days during the afternoon, we would get the chance to meet up with the neighbours’ children to play with them. We would form a team of bicycles to ride around and explore the areas surrounding our houses, the furthest we reached was Shams Cafeteria. To us, this was a daring and big achievement and if we intended on embarking on this adventure we would be sure to plan ahead.

On other days where the weather was better and during the berry season, we would stand on fences to harvest them from the trees and place them in bags. Then we take them home, wash them and eat them before sunset because this meant the end of our fun time, but who could steal the joy from the young adventurers?

Then there was the road to Al Wakrah — a city that loves its people. Every morning, we would pass by the Parachute Roundabout and the Seashell Roundabout to get to our schools. Al Wakrah, the city we moved to, was expanding and prospering right in front of our very eyes.

From the houses near the ocean to the houses of different neighbourhoods, from the heritage to its maritime history, to the preparations of Ramadan and Eid that include Al Haya Baya, the people of Al Wakrah value their relationship with the area and would jump to defend it at any time necessary. This feeling of pride continues even today with the opening of the Al Janoub Stadium, which has been designed by the legendary Zaha Hadid and represents Qatar’s maritime history.

Many of these traditional neighbourhoods have evolved into beautiful living spaces with better roads, however, the memories of these traditional neighbourhoods, the old streets and roundabouts will always remain.

The roads and neighbourhoods are changing, they progress and so does Qatar, but without forgetting its past. Instead, Qatar preserves the past by adding a new vision to the existing ideas in order to keep its soul. Between Souq Waqif, Al Wakrah Souq, and the modern city of Msheireb, Doha travels between its past and present while keeping its spirit for change.

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