I walked into Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar first thing in the morning. The sun was harsh and unrelenting, the streets empty. Everyone was waiting in the comfort of their A/C for daylight to wane before re-emerging at night. I wondered if I should have been back at the hotel, doing the same.
My guide seemed especially excited about this visit, however, and hurried me into a corridor leading to the entrance of a small restaurant. A green sign with gold Arabic letters and 3 leaves denoted the location, bustling with activity. This was where all the people were, and I would soon find out why.
I was led into the dining room with several tables and noticed endless pictures lining the walls. I didn’t recognize a lot of the celebrities, but you could tell notable people had eaten here. There was one figure who was a constant throughout the photos – Shams Al-Qassabi. She stood respectfully, smiling, donning a modest black abaya in every frame.
Who is Shams Al-Qassabi?
Shams Al-Qassabi is the first female entrepreneur in Souq Waqif, Qatar’s busiest market. At the age of 36 (approximately, because she doesn’t have a birth certificate to verify), she decided to start her own business. She was married and had already raised 5 children by the time she made the controversial decision to venture out on her own.
At first, it was shameful for her to be in the market. If someone passed by who knew her husband, she made every effort to hide her face so as to not impugn his reputation. Despite the initial hardships, she kept going. Spice trading was in her blood. Her father had been a successful spice trader and taught her all the tricks of the trade. She learned from him, but she didn’t get a leg up from him. Her father advised her before he passed away that a successful trader must start from zero.
And that’s exactly what Shams Al-Qassabi did. She started with a lemon tree in her backyard, making pickles and selling them to her neighbors. She made 500 riyals from her sales at home, enough to earn her a spot at the first Modern Family Exhibition in Qatar. There, her business saw unprecedented success and record sales. Shams Al-Qassabi turned her investment of 500 riyals into 32,000 riyals in sales at the exhibition. Demand was so strong that it wasn’t long before she opened up a small cafe with 6 seats.
What does Shay Al Shoomos specialize in?
Now, she has over 200 seats and the best-known breakfast spot in all of Doha, called Shay Al Shoomos. This is due in large part to the creativity of Shams Al-Qassabi. She reimagined the classic regag bread recipe in over 30 different ways. What was once flat, she remade into unique shapes like cones. What was once a set recipe, she recreated with a variety of flavors.
Fluent in Hindi, she travels around the world to select and source spices. She only buys spices she has tried herself. But it’s not her ingenuity or commitment to quality that she credits for her success – it’s the kindness of Her Highness Sheikha Moza.
Which celebrities have dined at Shay Al Shoomos?
Eyes gleaming as she pointed to the photo of the two of them together, front and center in the dining room, Al-Qassabi explained that Her Highness visited her shop when she was just getting started and her endorsement and support was crucial to the growth of the business. I found it particularly satisfying that all the employees I saw were men. Al-Qassabi employs 14 people, and each one of them regards her with respect and almost reverence.
I felt honored when she sat with me for a while, using one employee as a translator. She radiated warmth and ease as she talked about the path that got her there. I understood two words – “David Beckham” – as she pulled out her phone and showed me the picture of her with the famous soccer player.
After about 20 minutes of chatting, we took a photo and she went on to other tables, making sure they were enjoying their meal and obliging patrons who wanted to take selfies along the way. It was time for me to eat, before the feast got cold.
What can you eat at Shay al Shoomos restaurant?
On the table was a massive spread, with items I recognized as baked beans, chickpeas, minced meat, eggs, pita bread, labneh, and quite a few dishes I didn’t recognize. I figured the best way to learn would be to taste them all, so I worked my way around the plates making various noises of surprise and satisfaction. Salty, savory, sweet – every flavor was represented. I washed it all down with arabic coffee, seasoned with saffron and cardamom.
What else should you see while in Souq Waqif?
Before departing, I went next door to see Shams Al-Qassabi’s spice shop. This was, after all, the skill that started her empire. Jar after jar of blends lined the shelves, and I found myself wishing I’d brought more than a carry-on bag for my trip.
After my visit, I stopped by the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital. There is a small exhibit on site that teaches visitors about the history of falconry and its importance in Qatari culture. I also appreciated and witnessed firsthand the care falcon owners take to ensure not so much as a feather is out of place.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the National Museum of Qatar, learning about Qatari culture and marveling at the architectural feat of its construction. I would return to Souq Waqif later to stroll the markets at night, after the sun went down.
How do you get to Shay Al Shoomos?
I drove to Shay Al Shoomos from my hotel. Other options include taking the metro, although the closest stop is Ad Dawhah, a 25-minute walk away. In the morning, I recommend getting a ride if you do not have your own vehicle. Uber and Lyft both work in Doha. You can also get a taxi from your hotel.
I entered Shay Al Shoomos sleepy and hungry but left sated and invigorated by the power of one woman to break stereotypes, change perceptions, and subtly nudge a patriarchal culture into the 21st century.