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Researcher in Qatar Scrambles To Document Early Doha

DOHA—Qatar has very few old buildings or traditional architecture left. That’s one of the main reasons the Souk Waqif complex near downtown Doha came to be. It is nestled on the opposite ridge of the corniche from the skyscrapers that dominate the Westbay neighborhood. It is a deliberate contradiction to the modern glass-fronted buildings across the water.

“They’re getting ready for national day,” says Irene Theodoropoulou, a social scientist and linguistics professor at Qatar University, as she points at the purple and white flags and bunting draped over the buildings of the souk.

The smell of sweet shisha smoke wafts through the winding passageways of the ornate market.

The souk itself feels authentic and old at first glance, but it isn’t. There are CCTV cameras built into the walls, an underground car park with elevator access, and the stone archways are too perfectly rounded.

While there has been some sort of a market here for at least a century, the souk suffered economic decline in the 1990s at the hands of the popular, air-conditioned shopping malls. A 2003 fire destroyed much of the original site, but the souk was later restored to its former glory.

Theodoropoulou, who is personable and warm, enjoys Qatar and the complexities it presents to its vast population of fellow expats. The road rage that prevails throughout the peninsula made her reluctant to buy a car when she first arrived in 2011, but it’s hard to live in Doha without wheels. Eventually she caved and now drives a red compact Peugeot, which contrasts with the sea of white Toyota Land Cruisers and similar vehicles that dominate the highways here.

She hails from Greece originally, where she got her undergraduate degree at the University of Athens before pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in sociolinguistics at Kings College, London.

An example of the wooden poles. Image credit: Benjamin Plackett

She says growing up around an abundance of ancient Greek ruins makes her appreciate the few antique buildings left in her adopted country.

Theodoropoulou wants to catalogue what little remains of Doha’s traditional architecture before it’s gone for good. The downtown area surrounding the souk is in the process of being demolished to make way for new offices and apartments.

She says the builders did a good job with the souk revitalization and wants to make sure there’s a record of Qatari architecture so that future reconstructions can be authentic.

“One of the most distinctive marks of Gulf and Qatari architecture,” she says, “are the wooden poles that poke horizontally through the walls at the tops of buildings.” You see this feature on many of the buildings that make up Souk Waqif.

The reason for the poles is functional. Builders in times past would make sure the posts protruded from the building, to make it easier to add another room later. “But it looks like a stylistic choice,” says Theodoropoulou.

Yasser Mahgoub, the chair of Qatar University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, says the government is beginning to realize the importance of at least documenting old architecture, if not preserving it. “The regret is starting to come here in Qatar,” he says, “The old city center is gone, with the exception of just a few houses.”

Mahgoub, originally from Cairo, joined Qatar University the same year as Theodoropoulou. They met on their first day at the university’s human resources reception. After talking for a while, they found that they got on and had some overlapping academic interests. They decided to collaborate on a research project through which they would document and collate the names, descriptions and images of traditional Qatari architectural practices.

The project was not without its stresses, mainly in terms of time. “Bulldozers don’t wait for you to write a paper,” says Mahgoub.

They ended up creating an illustrated glossary book of traditional Qatari architecture. “Above all we had fun,” he says. “She’s a very easy person to work with.”

Other colleagues agree.

Iglal Ahmed is a lecturer in Advanced Reading Comprehension & Translation Studies at Qatar University and shares an office with Theodoropoulou. “She’s a very adaptable person,” says Ahmed. “She came to Qatar from the U.K. and she’s from Greece, but she adapted very well to the culture here.”

“She’s very personable and approachable. Students seem to love her,” she adds.

Theodoropoulou is frequently invited to her students’ wedding receptions at posh Doha hotels. That says a lot about how much her students value her, says Ahmed. “There are professors who have been here longer and have never been to the weddings of students.”


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