DOHA – It is past midnight when I exit the Souq Waqif metro station, and even if there are no signs to direct me to Qatar’s famous marketplace, it would not have been difficult to find.
Immediately, my ears pick up Arabic music emanating from within a huddled mass in the distance. As I get closer, I see the gleam of a long, shiny object that is twirling in the air.
An ardah (Arabic sword dance) is taking place in the middle of a group of onlookers, who are joyously clapping to the beat of the music blaring from a speaker. The smell of sweet shisha smoke wafts through the air.
Established over a century ago as a trading place where nomadic tribes of Bedouins and locals could exchange an assortment of products and socialise, Souq Waqif has become the focal point for fans at the ongoing World Cup.
Open 24 hours a day during the Nov 20-Dec 18 tournament, it is where thousands flock each evening after matches to soak in the easy, family-friendly carnival atmosphere, mingle with fellow supporters, take selfies, or simply relax with a cup of coffee or karak (spiced) tea at one of the many al fresco cafes and restaurants that line the cobbled streets.
Perfumes, garments, spices, seasonal delicacies such as dried fruit and nuts, and handicrafts are found here year-round, although vendors have tweaked their wares to welcome football’s showpiece.
Navigate through the narrow cardamom-scented alleyways and you will come across vendors hawking ghutras (the traditional Arabic headdress) with a twist.
In addition to the typical white or red-and-white checkered garments, you can now also find many in Brazil’s green and yellow, Argentina’s sky blue and white, and Mexico’s tricolour red, white and green hanging from displays.
Unofficial World Cup memorabilia can be found at every other stall, it seems – including jerseys, scarves, flags, key chains, country-flag sunglasses.
There are also throbes designed to look like football jerseys or in participating nations’ colours; one even features the Saint George’s Cross that is found on England’s flag.
Far from being offended, locals have found the trend of visitors donning World Cup-themed traditional Arabic outfits endearing.
At one stall, as a vendor fiddles with a ghutra on the head of a tall Caucasian man wearing a Croatian jersey, an Arab man in a white throbe walking by smiles and gives his approval.
“Masya Allah”, he says, uttering the Arabic phrase which expresses awe.
Other attractions at Souq Waqif – such as the bird market where you can buy pets from parakeets to iguanas – remain open to curious tourists.
This includes a dedicated marketplace and hospital for falcons, the national bird of Qatar.
Local residents can purchase the bird of prey for as low as US$2,500 (S$3,400), although a top-notch falcon could cost 10 times that.
There are also various art installations on display in Souq Waqif, such as camel and falcon sculptures and a giant golden thumb (actually polished bronze patina) that has become a hit for those seeking Instagram-worthy shots.
As I trundle along with a group of people towards one of the three dedicated exit points – other passages into the marketplace are boarded up at night to manage the flow of visitors coming in and leaving – I walk past the ardah performer again, his white T-shirt now drenched in sweat.
The group around him appears to have swelled. They will revel long into the night, as the sound of the mizmar (Arabic trumpet) fades as I depart.