I have never moved anywhere in my life where I held so many prejudices and mistaken apprehensions/ imaginings as I held about the Middle East. I imagined a country filled with misoginistic men, downtrodden, covered women and children whose whole lives were determined by whether they were born a boy or a girl.
I could not have been more wrong and I was delighted to be proved wrong. The men were respectful and kind, the women proud, beautiful, well put together and again, respectful and kind. And as I went about my daily business in Qatar, the place where I interacted most with the local people, was the supermarket.
I remember in my first week, being starkly disabused of my prejudices in one supermarket trip. The first, I was crossing the road from the parking lot to the supermarket entrance and one of those ridiculous white super 4x4s screeched to a halt, the male driver smiled at me from under his keffiyeh and motioned for me to cross. Bemused I did so, before he screeched off again.
And the Qatari supermarkets have this amusing lottery to win a 4×4, which absolutely everyone goes in for. The more money you spend, the more raffle tickets they give you. At the exit of the supermarket the hopeful shoppers fill in their contact details and drop the raffle tickets into the tombola wheel. Well, on my first shopping trip, I waited patiently by the podium to fill in my details, and when I got there I realised I had no pen. The lovely Qatari lady in front of me offered hers, and waited while I completed my details on 25 tickets! And chatted to me all the while. Qataris? I found out within a week that they are charming, and of course, exactly the same as the rest of us.
In all countries that you may visit and live in, there will usually be different classes of supermarket, those for the not so well off, those for the folks that have a bit of spare cash, and those for the folks who have more money than sense. Well I’m afraid to say that much of my time abroad has been spent shopping in the latter, but I have always made a point to visit all kinds, including the local markets…
The interesting thing about any established supermarket that I have visited, is that they are all the same. They all sell the same produce and brands and the only variances on this is that they always cater to the local market in some way. Oftentimes, this is most obvious in the bread aisle, and of course, in Qatar, they had the ubiquitous Arabic bread (delicious by the way and thinner than pitta bread).
Qatar was notable for the fact that only 15% of the population are Qatari nationals, the rest are imported labour of some sort or another and this is evident in the supermarkets, which had Asian, American, British, European aisles and all of their food is imported anyway. It’s amazing that you can get most of the things from home in Qatar, but for a 200% markup, of course.
But we ate well in Qatar, most people put on weight when they arrived there and the availability of good food there was extraordinary, for a country that does not produce any food of its own.
And as as for food quality, well, that’s a tricky one. We heard horror stories of the way that meat was stored and the freshness or not of the produce. And the ice cream would always have those icy bits in it, where you knew it had melted in transit and then refrozen, and I was often sick there, with some stomach bug or another, that was no doubt caused by the food. But it was a good life, with choice and variety.
As for the local food markets, they did have the farmers markets that you would expect and I was amazed by the livestock markets that were next to the vegetable markets, you can’t help but be amused by the sight of goats and camels on the backs of trucks, but frankly, it smelt REALLY bad and you don’t particularly want to purchase food in a stinky environment, do you?
And finally, they had the souqs, at which you could buy any spices you wanted, but honestly, you had no idea of their provenance and when you asked the guy selling them, he looked at you like you were crazy. Better the devil you know in the supermarket in that case!