Qatari Culture Trip
When Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, one of its main goals was to build a bridge between east and west. Our differing beliefs and customs, values and behaviours, even our diverse languages, are often cause for uncertainness, wariness and distance between cultures. Qatar, in 2022, wants to welcome the world to discover and enjoy, and learn about their culture, which at its roots is based on compassion, tolerance, hospitality and faith. This World Cup, the first in the Middle East, is an opportunity for others to gain a greater understanding of Qatar’s vibrant culture that, though it is steeped in tradition and faith, is modern, tolerant and welcoming.
We are all individual, but we all like to identify with others and to belong to something greater than ourselves. One of the most abiding groups we belong to is the culture of the nation we were born into, or that we live within.
The culture of our nation comprises many different elements - our history, our beliefs and values, and our language. It is reflected in our traditions, customs, attitudes and behaviours, our music, art, crafts and literature, our cuisine, style of dress, architecture and laws, even the sports we play and the festivals and holidays we celebrate. Our culture is essentially our way of life, and it defines a large part of who we are.
Modern transport links have allowed us to experience different cultures from one end of the globe to another as we travel to live, work, study and holiday in countries other than our own. And, with that experience comes understanding, tolerance and even admiration for the way of life of others.
Qatar is opening its doors to the world as host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup. For many people, those travelling to the Middle East and those watching the tournament from their homes, it will be their first taste of Qatari culture, and for some their first experience of the Arab way of life. The hope is that people welcomed into this small nation will end the tournament with a new appreciation of what a hospitable, beautiful and culturally fascinating place Qatar and the Middle East really is.
But, what is Qatari culture, where does it stem from and how does it fit into the modern world?
The Bedouin Way of Life
The majority of Qataris can trace their ancestry back to Bedouin tribes - nomadic peoples who roamed the deserts of the Middle East for centuries.
Traditionally, Bedouins were herders; herding mainly sheep, goats and cattle, and trading in meat, dairy and wool. They lived in tents weaved from animal hair, known locally as a bayt al sha'ar; kept camels for transportation, entertainment, milk, and sometimes meat; and, as the nature of a herder dictates, migrated with the seasons and the need for grazing land.
Tribes were governed by a Sheikh, who generally inherited the responsibility from his father, whose lineage linked back to a common tribal ancestor. Each tribe operated under patriarchal lineage (with men holding power and predominant roles), family units were also patrilineal (where proximity to male kinship denoted levels of inheritance, social position, privileges, loyalty, etc.).
Men and women had defined roles within the community. Women were responsible for maintaining the household, feeding and milking livestock, rearing children, cooking, weaving fabric and making clothes. Men were responsible for looking after the larger animals, such as camels and horses, herding livestock, trading and protecting the tribe. Men also undertook the role of the hunter; hunting for food using falcons and Saluki hunting dogs.
While inter-clan conflict and raids for livestock and resources were common practice, Bedouins were, and still are, famous for their exceptional hospitality. Traditionally no guests, be they strangers, friends or enemies, were turned away from a Bedouins tent. Instead, they were fed, watered and given a place to rest for up to three days. Guests were received, by the male contingent of the tribe or family, in a majlis (a large seating area typically with carpeted floor and cushions encircling a fire pit used for making coffee). Guests were served Arabic coffee (kahwa) and dates on arrival. Majlis were also places for discussing tribal matters, socialising and celebrating.
Bedouins dressed for the elements. Long, loose robes and head coverings were worn by men and women. Men typically wore white cotton ankle-length shirts with a robe or long-sleeved coat over the top (often belted and complete with a dagger). Women usually wore dark robes with the addition of a niqab (a mask-like veil to cover the face) if in the company of anyone but immediate relatives.
The majority language of the Bedouins is Arabic, and, for most, their religion follows the teachings of Islam.
Bedouin tribes and nomadic lifestyles still exist in small numbers, though, for the most part, desert-dwellers settled in urban communities as the region developed. The discovery of oil hastened the demise of the nomadic way of life within Qatar's borders. Though life has evolved for the vast majority of Qataris, many core traditions, ways of life and beliefs have stayed the same as those held by the Bedouin.
Today, Qatar is still governed by a Sheikh descended from one of the major Bedouin tribes that settled on the Peninsula centuries ago. Society and families still, to a greater degree, abide by patriarchal and patrilineal structures. Many families still prefer to live in extended households typically made up of three generations, with many sons staying within the family home after marriage and women moving to her husband's family home. However, the role of women and men has changed significantly. Girls and women now enjoy the benefits of an education, the opportunity to work, to drive, and to take prominent roles within their families. Men still enjoy hunting with falcons and dogs - though for sport rather than for food. And, with an increasing number of women involved, Qataris are also ensuring the continued tradition of Arabian horse and camel ownership.
In fact, the breeding and racing of Arabian horses and camel racing are multi-million dollar industries in Qatar these days. Although camels are no longer essential to life in the desert, they are still a crucial link to the Qatari people's heritage - owning a camel is seen as a sign of wealth and status. Owning an Arabian horse is also a sign of great status and wealth, as it was for Bedouins. Today's Qataris are equally as passionate as their ancestors about breeding and owning pure-breds. Bedouins are acknowledged with maintaining the purity of the Arabian breed throughout the centuries - today that tradition continues with Qatar being home to and owning some of the most revered breeding centres in the world.
While tents have been replaced with homes of bricks and mortar, many Qataris still spend weekends and the summer months residing outdoors. The tents used today are essentially the same as those used by the Bedouins, and many traditions, such as the majlis for socialising, are still upheld. However, the home comforts of toilets, electricity, running water and air conditioning, with 4x4's parked nearby are evidence of the change in times.
The majlis continues to be a significant cultural tradition in Qatar, and, of course, many Arab nations. Still regarded as a symbol of hospitality, the majority of homes have a majlis - some have a majlis for men and a separate majlis for women. Guests are still entertained within the majlis, and the serving of kahwa and dates is still an important part of the 'ceremony'. The carpets and cushions that adorn a majlis today are also crafted from woven fabric in the traditional sadu style (geometric shapes, patterns and symbols handwoven into fabric, using wool in black, red, white, brown and beige colours, for furnishings, clothes, tents, and so on). The practice of sadu weaving was a Bedouin women's responsibility.
Many public spaces in Qatar, especially during events and festivals, have majlis for people to gather, relax and socialise. While keeping an important tradition alive, it is also an opportunity for visitors to the country to experience Qatari culture and the pervading idea of hospitality that forms the basis of the nation's ideals.
Styles of dress have changed as the habitat of the modern Qatari has changed and influences from abroad filter into the country. However, for the most part, women still wear a thin black robe (abaya) over their clothes and a headdress (hijab) that can be wrapped around the head, neck and chest, and over the face if a woman desires. Qatari men still wear long white shirts (thobe) and head coverings (a white or white and red gutra - a loose headdress, over a gahfiya - a woven cap, and held in place by a black rope called an agal). Daggers tend not to be worn!
For the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, organisers have strived to bring Qatari culture and heritage to the fore. One example is in the design of the new World Cup stadiums, in particular, Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor and Al Thumama Stadium in Doha. The Al Thumama Stadium design is based on the gahfiya, and the Al Bayt Stadium has been designed to resemble a typical Bedouin tent.
The World Cup 2022 stadiums are an attraction in themselves with their innovative designs, cutting-edge technology and legacy plans. To discover more, head to our Stadiums page.
The Sea, Islam and Arabs
The Maritime Effect
The sea has also played an important role in shaping Qatar's national identity. While many Qataris can trace their roots back to the Bedouins, a good many others can link their heritage to the land's early coastal settlers. It is true that many Bedouins settled on the coast, either permanently or seasonally. However, the history annals tell us that migrants, many from Persia, also travelled to and settled on the peninsula's coastline. Those migrating ancestors were known locally as Hadar peoples. As the population and coastal industries grew in Qatar, slaves, often from East Africa, were also brought to the country and, over time and with the abolishment of slavery, settled and adopted Qatar as their homeland. These people were known as Abd.
Those who colonised the coast were generally involved in the two dominant livelihoods established along the coastline, fishing and pearl diving. These two occupations, as well as overseas trade, dominated the economy for centuries. Pearling, in particular, was Qatar's mainstay economy. Before the 1930s and the discovery of oil, pearl diving and the many offshoot industries associated with pearling employed over half of the nation's population. Entire tribes, villages and towns were reliant on the pearling trade for their existence. It is no wonder then that the sea has had such an impact on the Qatari way of life and can be seen so predominantly in their culture today.
Maritime events and activities are immortalised in Qatari literature, poetry, songs, music and dance, arts and folklore spanning the centuries. Qatar was not only a pearl trading centre that involved vast swathes of the population, but it was also an uncertain and dangerous profession. People's lives hung in the balance with the success and failure of pearl fishing voyages each year, and divers themselves were subject to a myriad of dangers to their health from drowning and decompression sickness (the bends), to being attacked by hostile sea life. Many stories, folklore tales and songs recount the joys, the dangers and the harsh realities of pearl diving. Those tales have been passed down from generation to generation and still cast their influence over Qataris. Indeed, the nation's seafaring past is evident in pieces created by today's artists, poets, writers and composers. And, though modern Arabic and western music now dominate, traditional music and dance stemming from the pearling industry are still performed at weddings and other private celebrations, and a host of public events and festivals.
For centuries, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and further afield were sailed in wooden sailing vessels known as Dhows. Made from imported wood, dhow boat building was a craft in itself - depending on its size boats could take up to two years to build as the hull was stitched together using rope, cord and fibre. The vessels were used by fishing and pearling crews and traders, and they were as integral to the lives of the people as the industries they supported; they were also Qatar’s connection to the rest of the world. Dhows are no longer used for commercial fishing and trade, but they are still a predominant feature in Qatar and the craft of boat building, though on a vastly smaller scale, is still practised. Doha’s Corniche teems with dhow boats and is home to Dhow Harbour where crowds of these old wooden vessels, of every shape, size and style, are docked. Though most boats are used for public cruises for residents and tourists, owning a dhow as a private cruise vessel is a symbol of status and national pride. Whatever their use, Dhows remain a symbol of Qatar’s connection to the sea. The Dhow features on the country’s national emblem and model boats are used all over the country as decorative features on beaches and promenades, in parks, etc.
Qataris are Muslims and adhere to the teachings of the Islamic faith.
Islamic religious practices have been observed in the Middle East for many centuries. Indeed, Islam was first promulgated in Arabia in the 7th Century. It stands to reason, therefore, that Islam has had an unquestionable impact on many cultural practices, throughout the region.
In Qatar, one of the most apparent influences of Islam is the use of the Arabic language. While Arabic dialects existed before, the introduction of the Qur'an in the 7th Century heralded the beginning of Arabic as a world language. Interestingly, today it is estimated that more than 420 million people speak Arabic across the world, and it is the official language of twenty-five countries. There are many varieties of Arabic between countries and even within a country's borders. In Qatar, Qatari Arabic, from the Gulf Arabic variety, is spoken.
Visually, the influence of Islamic art can be clearly observed in Qatar. Traditionally, oral arts (songs, poetry, folktales, etc.) were the dominant form of artistic expression in Qatar until the early 20th Century and the discovery of oil. This lack of visual art was in part, especially for Bedouins, due to a lack of resources and logistics. Visual arts that were created, in Qatar and across many Muslim majority countries, were based on calligraphy (prized for its connection to the Islamic faith), geometric shapes and abstract patterns of flora and foliage. This non-representational style was generally preferred due to the Islamic preference for art that avoids the depiction of sentient beings. Islamic art was used in paintings and drawings but mainly to adorn handicrafts, ceramics, textiles, glass, woodwork, metalwork, architecture (typically mosques, forts and palaces) and so on. Nowadays, art of all types is prevalent in Qatar. An abundance of museums and galleries exhibit arts from ancient times through to today's modern art. Art sculptures can be found all over Doha's city streets, in the Hamad International Airport, and even in the desert. However, the tradition of using Islamic art has not faded. Visitors to Qatar can see examples of Islamic art almost everywhere they go. Most obviously, traditional patterns and designs can be found embellishing or being built into the country's architecture. From Mosques to Government buildings, hotels to Metro stations, Qatar is determinedly fusing traditional artistic traditions with modernity.
Other influences on Qatari culture, and indeed in the majority of other Arab countries, are seen in etiquette and behaviour (dressing modesty, refraining from public displays of affection between opposite sexes, social respect for the elderly, etc.); food (the absence of alcohol and pork products, and the consumption of halal meats only); annual holidays and festivals (Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha); and, the observance of Ramadan.
The Arab World
One of Qatar’s greatest cultural offerings is its cuisine. Rich, spiced, aromatic foods, abundant with fresh vegetables, healthy grains and pulses, fill menus with the promise of a delicious explosion of distinctly Middle Eastern flavours.
Food is a national pastime. Culturally, eating is associated with family time with families sitting down to share food and spend time together. Today, the country teems with restaurants and cafes filled with families eating both traditional foods and foods from all over the world. But, where does Qatari cuisine come from?
Traditionally, staple foods on the peninsula include fish, meats, such as mutton, lamb and goat, beans and grains, bread, dates and dried fruits, dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, Arabic tea and coffee. Staple meals, traditionally, are roasted or cooked in stews and tagines.
Over time and with the migration of peoples from North Africa, the Levant and Persia, a host of different foods (spices, vegetables, fruits, etc.), recipes and ways of cooking were brought to the country. Some dishes served in Qatar today have their origins in neighbouring Arab countries. These include mezes, salads, dips and sauces such as baba ganoush, fattoush, hummus, labneh, tabbouleh, za’atar, main meals such as kebabs, shashlik, shawarma, and sweets such as ma’amoul and umm ali.
The national dish of Qatar is machboos, spiced rice with meat or fish. It is also the national dish of Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and is a popular dish in many other Arab States.
Unsurprisingly, Arab and Qatari culture is often viewed by the outside world as the same. Since many of the Arab nations today descended from early tribes who wandered and settled throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Persia and North Africa, there are, of course, many similarities. Equally, the majority of Arabs are Muslim, so many cultural aspects are based on the same principals. As such, features of governance, family structure, gender roles, standards of modesty, religious practices and holidays, social interactions and core beliefs and values are very similar. However, though Qatari culture is closely linked to their Arab heritage and their faith, as a nation they are fiercely independent. They are proud of their history, the country that they have built and the values they hold - specifically their compassion for the needy and tolerance for other cultures and peacefulness. In modern times, as the world becomes ever more interconnected, it is those values that have helped Qatar to grow from a tiny country into a nation with far-reaching global influence.
Since the discovery of oil in the early half of the 20th Century, Qatar has seen enormous changes. The country’s economy is now one of the richest in the world and is reflected in the country’s phenomenal rate of development. Having achieved economic security, like many other nations, Qataris want to have all of life's modern conveniences - beautiful homes and modern cities, education, better employment opportunities, advanced modes of transport, entertainment and leisure activities, and so on. Though many of the cultural traditions of Qatar’s past live on in the ritual behaviours and customs of Qataris today, many of the old ways of day-to-day life have all but died out as people's needs and wants have changed.
Additionally, the influx of economic migrants, as well as increases in international trade, business and foreign investment and increased access to world-wide travel, have also contributed to the changes wrought across the nation and its people. Driven by the discovery of oil and the resultant economic boom, Qatar has sought expatriate workers to support the ongoing growth of the country. As of 2019, the country's population was almost 3 million people, only 15% of those are Qataris. Of the migrant population, there are over one hundred different nationalities - making Qatar’s current make-up truly diverse. With such diversity comes the need to adapt and provide for an array of cultural differences - from places of worship, types of food and cuisine, places for entertainment and leisure, educational establishments, and so on. Qatar’s social landscape has changed as a result.
Change, of course, is a positive thing when it benefits society and is managed well. Indeed, Qatari culture is well-known for its tolerance of other people's cultures, and it is for that reason that so many people from so many differing backgrounds live so peaceably together in such a small country. However, change can also dilute a nation's culture, something the Qatari Government is keen to protect against.
Balancing Cultural Change
The Government has long been keen to ensure that their nation's culture and the old ways of life are preserved. They are committed to ensuring their history and heritage, the craftsmanship and skills of their forefathers, and the attitudes and beliefs their state was built upon are not forgotten. Through programmes and projects that reinforce cultural ideals, the Government is working to maintain the country's strong sense of national identity and belonging.
Their efforts are most apparent in the cultural history industry that has sprung up over the last few decades. Museums, cultural centres, traditional markets, reconstructed and restored buildings, and a host of annual cultural events and festivals can be found all over the country. Even in the built environment, the majority of new buildings now require aesthetic links to the nation's heritage. In Doha and the surrounding suburbs, the results are far-reaching. This metropolis screams modernity, technological innovation and progressive design, but clearly fused with tradition and in line with the nation's heritage.
In 2007, a decree by the then heir to the throne, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani introduced a public holiday to celebrate the country’s culture. National Day, held annually on the 18th December, gives Qatar’s people the opportunity, not only to celebrate their national identity but also to explore and share their heritage and history.
The impact of the Government's efforts is a feeling that, while times are changing, a distinct Qatari identity is at the heart of everything.
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