How did Qatar get its name?
The origin of the name Qatar is uncertain. However, it dates back at least 2000 years. A term catharrei, was used by Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century AD to describe the inhabitants of the peninsula. The Catara peninsula was depicted on a map by Ptolemy, in the 2nd century AD. The Capital City of Doha may have gotten its name from the Arabic word Ad-Dawha, meaning “the big tree”; a reference to the prominent tree that stood at the site of the original fishing village.
Where is Qatar located?
The small peninsula jets out about 525 feet north into the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula, making it a sub peninsula. Qatar has a small land border with Saudi Arabia to the southwest and they share maritime borders with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran. Its northwest coast lies just thirty kilometers, or 19 miles from Bahrain.
Qatar is generally a barren land. It has a dry, subtropical, desert climate, with low annual rainfall and blistering hot and humid summers. Much of the country consists of sand dunes and salt flats, with only scattered vegetation. There is a small range of hills in the northwest, the highest point reaching just 328 feet. The coastline has a number of beautiful sandy beaches, the best of which lie in the north and west. Due to the topography, Qatar is susceptible to intense sand storms.
A Brief History of Qatar
Qatar has been occupied by humans for at least 50,000 years. Stone Age encampments and tools have been unearthed on the small sub peninsula. It fell under the domain of numerous empires during its early years of settlement. In 628 AD the population was introduced to Islam. By the 8th century it became a pearl trading center.
In 1783, Arab tribes conquered Bahrain and the Al Khalifa imposed their authority over both Bahrain and Qatar. After a war broke out, the British installed the religious ruler, Muhammad ibn Thani-al-Thani, the head of a leading Qatari family. In 1893, the Ottomans who expanded their Empire into the area, made incursions into Qatar. They withdrew from the area after the beginning of World War I, in 1913.
In 1916, Qatar became a British Protectorate and Abdullah Al Thani was put into power. The Al-Thani family has been in control of Qatar ever since. The country is run as a constitutional monarchy. It gained independence from Britain on September 3, 1971. Oil was discovered in the 1940s, bringing great wealth to the country. Oil and gas make up 85% of the GDP. Today Qatar is one of the richest nations on earth, based on per capita GDP. There are no taxes in Qatar and the people get free health care, education (including higher education) and a corporate tax rate of 10% as a flat tax. Women were allowed to vote in 1999, at the same time as men. It wasn’t until 2003 that it was put into the constitution. Qatari women make up about ½ of the labor force, which is above the world average and among the highest in the Arab world.
In 2003, Qatar became the nerve center in the US-led military campaign in Iraq. In 2010 Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. They are spending billions of dollars to get ready for it, with new hotels, buildings and infrastructure.
In recent times, there has been a diplomatic crisis due to its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, as well as the UAE and Egypt, which have imposed an air, land and sea blockade. They are hoping Qatar will cut its alleged connections with terrorism and distance itself from Iran. Qatar which is known to have the best airline in the world, has to avoid these air spaces in its flight patterns.
Qatar has about 2.6 million inhabitants. However, foreign workers, mainly from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines make up 88% of the population. Qatari nationals make up the other 12% of the population. Its culture can be traced back to three main influences: the desert, the sea and Islam. The desert, Bedouin culture is intrinsic to Qatari identity. Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken as well.
The Arabian Peninsula is one of the last places in the world where falconry is still actively practiced. In fact, this 5000 year old tradition was introduced by the Bedouin as an effective means of hunting. Today the practice is a national heritage and passed down from generation to generation. In the famous Souq Waquif there is a falcon hospital where falcons can be bought and sold for thousands of dollars. Some birds are even issued their own passports to prevent them from being taken out of the country illegally.
Camel racing is known as the “sport of sheikhs” and is big business in Qatar, with races held on nearly every Friday. Today the riders are robotic jockeys and some of their best camels can cost more than luxury cars.
Poetry and storytelling remains an integral part of the Bedouin culture. Nabati poems, which are a source of local tribal pride, are regularly broadcast on Qatari TV and radio as part of their cultural heritage. By the way, Qatar is home to Al Jazeera, a very popular news station, worldwide.
Qataris are very proud of their maritime traditions, which are based around pearl diving, fishing and boat making. Their folk music lyrics are closely associated with the sea, describing pearl diving, the hoisting of sails and rowing. These folk songs are normally sung together, as the traditional sailors would have sung them. Each year there is a dhow festival that celebrates not only the boats but all aspects of the old sailors.
It is Islam, however, where most of the cultural traditions are found. Traditional dress for example requires modesty by both males and females in the public realm. The thobe, is a long white robe typically worn by men, along with a head covering, known as the gutra, which is held in place by a black rope called an agal. Women wear a black robe called an abaya and a head covering called a shayla.
The Islamic month of Ramadan is widely revered in Qatar. Fasting is required during daylight hours, so all the restaurants are closed during the day. About 67% of the population of Qatar are Sunni Muslims with a few Shiites as well. Islamic instruction is compulsory of Muslims in all state-sponsored schools. Despite Islam being the state religion in Qatar, they do have freedom of association in their constitution. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are tried under the unified court system which incorporates both secular law and Sharia law. The Islamic holy days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are national holidays.
Why Visit Qatar?
Doha, the capital city, is the highlight of this quickly growing nation. It is home to a spectacular modern skyline, one of the best Museums of Islamic Art in the world, plus a fine traditional souq with a burgeoning arts and culinary scene. Being one of the richest nations on earth, here you can find the finest of everything.
As Qatar prepares to host the FIFA 2022 world cup, they are building at a stunning rate, adding new parks, buildings, high speed rail and gigantic stadiums. Watching the sunset over the sand dunes will make you feel as though your Arabian fairy tales have come true. Whether you are sand dune bashing or sleeping out in the dessert with camels, experiencing an authentic Bedouin meal along with traditional music is a dream come true, and you can find it all in Qatar.
They also have a stunning waterfront promenade called the Corniche, which lies on the Doha Bay in an elegant crescent shape. The Corniche is a beautiful place to walk and see their famous dhow boats. The Qatari people pride themselves on their Arabian hospitality.
Qatar has very little arable land, so most all of their food must be imported. The sea provides for locally caught fish, which is always plentiful and is prominent in their cuisine. As the country has become world class, nearly every conceivable type of cuisine can be found there. However, they pride themselves on keeping the local traditions and foods alive. The cuisine is heavily influenced by the cultures of the peninsula, as well as India, Iran, the Levant and North Africa.
Machbus is considered to be the national dish, as it is for its neighbor, Bahrain. Machbus can be made with chicken, seafood, or meat. Mutton served with yogurt is another staple, as is ghuzi, in which a whole roasted lamb is served on a bed of rice and nuts. Goat and sheep are also very popular meats in the cuisine. Dates are grown locally and are often served with a cup of Kazak tea or coffee as a means of showing their hospitality. Pork and alcohol are forbidden in Qatar, unless served in an international hotel. The best places to experience an authentic Qatari meal are in Souq Waqif or Katara.
So let’s enjoy a Qatari meal:
Served with Karak Tea (Spiced Tea with Milk)
We set our table with a small carpet, placed on the floor, with cushions. It is customary to sit on the floor in a cross legged position to eat a traditional Qatari meal and to use only the right hand. It is believed that eating in this sitting position, aids digestion, and the movement of reaching for the food and going back to a straight posture, helps with arthritis.
We decorated with a statue of an oryx, their national animal that lives in the desert there. A picture of a falcon was placed to signify their national bird. Dates were added, as they are the national fruit, along with pearls to represent their pearl diving heritage and a little can of oil, to symbolize their great wealth.
Our first course was stuffed grape leaf bundles, filled with sweet, lamb meat, herbs and spices. With one bite we were immediately transported to the region. Stuffed grape leaves are a loved tradition in many of the countries surrounding Qatar.
For the main course, we had harees, which is a hearty, beaten wheat and chicken dish, quite similar to the dish we had for Oman, called madrouba, (which was a beaten rice and chicken dish.) The harees are seasoned with ghee and toasted coriander. It is a true comfort food and each heavenly bite was scooped up with the Khubz Arabi (Arabian bread).
For dessert we enjoyed the sweet bread and cream dish called esh asaraya. It was topped with pistachios and was a lovely, sweet end to our Qatari meal. We enjoyed our dessert with their Karak tea; milk tea with a hint of cardamom; a true delight. Coffee and tea are always served to guests in Qatar and when you are finished, you simply shake you cup from side to side to let the hostess know you are satisfied.
As we say goodbye to this little nation of Qatar, I leave you with a quote from their tourism board.
“A land that understands, a traveler can never be a stranger, just a friend not yet met. That ultimately everyone is on their own journey, seeking the warmth of a friendly embrace, unique experiences, new stories to share. Where a meal is not a meal unless it is shared. A land rooted in ancient cultures, authentic soul, where past learning informs contemporary vision. Progressive spirit ignites new futures. A land offering enlightenment, invigoration and inspiration through its warmth of soul and spirit of vision.”
Until next time,
Shukran (That’s “thank you”, in Arabic)
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