Press "Enter" to skip to content

Amid football frenzy, woman entrepreneur showcases Qatari culture, cuisine

DOHA, QATAR —  The refreshing aroma of cardamom, cloves and al Qahwa al Arabiya – Arabic coffee – wafts through the elegant and vibrant eating joint in Doha’s Souq Waqif, which translates to the standing market.  

The tinkling of metal spoons against teacups breaks through muted conversations and occasional laughter as families and groups of friends gather at Shay al-Shomous, the traditional Qatari breakfast spot.

It’s a typical Saturday morning at the famous place often associated with hospitality, generosity and welcoming hugs.

But what really injects life into the restaurant is the owner and force behind it – a Qatari businesswoman in her 60s, Shams al Qassabi.

It is into this scene enters Shams, an age-wisened woman with an infectious smile that stirs up memories of family gatherings on special occasions.  

“What would you like to drink? Tea or Qahwa?” she says, rearranging her black shayla headdress, worn with a black abaya, a loose-fitting long garment with long sleeves worn by women in Qatar and the Middle East.

Against the backdrop of her country hosting the world’s biggest football tournament, the FIFA World Cup, Shams is promoting authentic Qatari culture and cuisine and serving as a symbol of financial independence for women in a nation where they have historically had a domestic role.

Her restaurant is the talk of the town. And local and foreigners have become patrons over the years.

The restaurant has green tables and chairs made of plain wood. Several photographs of Shams with celebrities – including one with England footballer David Beckham – hang from the walls. But the most distinct and larger images are of her with Qatar’s former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the current Emir of the country.

Those images tell her story.

It all started when Shams was just six-years-old, and a quick learner.

At the time, she tried to accompany her father and uncles, spice merchants in Doha’s old souq, almost every day, observing their trade and day-to-day activities.

She picked up the skill to sell, attract customers and be an entrepreneur at that tender age.

The result? A large number of customers outside her house, who wanted to buy her product: Flowers made of tissue paper.

She learned how to make small, medium, large, colourful and plain white flowers from tissue paper on her own and started selling those to neighbours and passers-by. Three flowers for one Qatari Riyal ($0.27).

“It wasn’t really normal. My father thought a big accident had happened as he saw a huge crowd gathered near our house, but when he stepped inside, he saw me with a bunch of flowers,” Shams tells TRT World.

“He asked for an explanation, and I told him. My father was impressed and brought me more tissue papers.”

Sham’s daughter Eman – who helps at the restaurant at least three times a week – assists her mother with interview requests, social media posts and translations.

“The menu here is made up of exclusive traditional Qatari food, a representation of our culture, history and traditions,” Emam tells TRT World.

The restaurant offers hot plates of baid o tamat (eggs and tomato), baid shakshoka (scrambled eggs), aseeda (local porridge made from wheat or corn), khobiz regag (crepe-like bread) and balaleet (sweet egg omelet breakfast dish made with vermicelli, turmeric, and sugar), Eman adds.

In an amalgamation of nostalgia and modernity, Qatari food has evolved beyond tradition and become a national pride source.

Today, more than 15 restaurants serve traditional Qatari food in the Gulf nation of 2.5 million people.

Shams, however, had to fight the rigid norms of a conservative society to become a recognised entrepreneur. And it was a long, challenging route.

At 17, Shams left Doha, the capital city of Qatar, and relocated to Dukhan, an hour’s drive west of the city, with her husband, who worked for a Qatari petroleum firm.

She raised five children, but in any free time she got, Shams was either teaching the chefs who worked for her husband’s business or making little outfits with hand-embroidered details in vibrant, whimsical patterns.

When Shams’ husband retired early in the mid-1990s, she decided to work to support her family. She quickly became well-known in the community for producing and selling flavourful preserves and expertly blending spices.

“My father always said, ‘once you value the zero, you value the 100’,” Shams says.

In 2001, Shams decided to use the 500 riyals ($137) she had earned from selling her spice blends and preserves on the side to participate in an exhibition called the Qatar Family Development.

Shams used her creativity to set up the stall at the exhibition on a meagre budget.

Since she couldn’t afford her jars and didn’t know how to have labels printed, Shams removed labels off discarded jars, sterilised them, filled them with her produce, and then adorned the jars and lids with colourful fabric.

She called her booth ‘Shomous’, a name used for Shams lovingly by friends and family.

The exhibition was a success and encouraged Shams to have a shop of her own.

In 2004, Shams dialled the Souq Waqif management office. The ancient market, with its dilapidated stucco buildings and busy streets packed with shoppers, was the ideal location for her spice business.

She thought that she would avoid interacting with the males in her family by choosing a position in the women’s area at the Souq, a site mainly reserved for female shopping. But instead, she was granted a store in the heart of all the other spice merchants.

She made it through, striding proudly despite the snarky remarks by male business owners who disapproved of the idea of a Qatari woman working in the market.

She did this while also surrounded by male relatives who owned stores nearby. And she was successful, as more and more customers came to purchase her speciality spice blends.

“I used to think, why should I be scared or intimidated? I am not doing anything wrong,” Shams says.

Eman interjects: “One significant point we cannot miss in this interview is the French photographer incident”.

On a memorable day at the time, as Shams was sitting in her shop, a French-Lebanese photographer took a few pictures of her. She asked him to stop, but he continued and said he worked for the Emiri Diwan, the administrative office of the Emir of Qatar.

The next day, she opened the newspaper and saw her pictures with an article: ‘First woman trader enters Souq Waqif’.

She felt a wave of accomplishment. But she was not prepared for the storm that was to follow.

“The struggles started here, everyone found out (about our business) because of the article. At gatherings, weddings, anywhere we went, people used to look down upon my mom because what she was doing, selling spices in the souq, was frowned upon if you are a woman,” Eman says.

What about now?

“Now people copy my mother’s spice recipes and sell them under their own names. But we don’t mind this. My mother has earned respect she gets today.”

In 2014, Shams moved from selling premium spices to being a restaurateur. As a result, she was able to relocate to a third site in the recently erected Bidda Hotel about eight years after she initially opened her business.

There was a modest waiting area outside the planned store with just enough amenities to provide waiting clients with refreshments.

The hotel management suggested she offer cappuccinos and lattes.

“Why not serve something Qatari?” Shams said at the time.

So she set up to sell Qatari cuisine, but no one came to eat for two months, and she had no business. Although this was discouraging for someone who had just started a new company and had great expectations for it, she persisted.

A couple of months later, the Bidda Hotel was formally launched. Shams was once again featured in the newspapers, business increased, and she finally expanded to open a full restaurant in her present location, which occupies a significant part of the hotel’s ground floor.

Shams ends her story with a proud smile on her face. She stood up and excused herself to speak to one of the restaurant staff.

“Sorry, just give me five minutes,” Shams says in broken Urdu she has learnt from her staff, primarily expats from Bangladesh and India.

The daughter stays at the table.

“She has seen a lot, struggled and faced many difficulties in her life to achieve her dream. I look up to her, along with many Qatari women,” Eman says.

“She is the shams (sunlight) of our country.”

More from Middle EastMore posts in Middle East »

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *