I have spent more than three months in Doha and in this time have explored and visited the city’s famous museums like the Museum of Islamic Art, Mathaf, Katara Art Center and popular modern localities like West Bay, the numerous malls but nothing has captivated me more than the Msheireb Arts Center. Located in Msheireb, once a suburb of Old Doha and now in the middle of it, this area was once known for the houses of rich merchants who controlled most of the trade as well as pearl fishing.
Msheireb means the ‘place of sweet water’and derived its name from a well that used to be in this locality. In the recent up haul of the city, these old landmarks have vanished and what remains is a view of numerous cranes over what would be the Msheireb Downtown Project. On the outskirts of this project is Msheireb Arts Center, situated in a school building from the early 1950s- probably the oldest school that survives in Doha. The school was the first girls school and was made for Amna Mahmood Al Jaidah, a teacher who had selflessly taught children at her home before this school.
It’s tucked away in one of the streets near the Mercure Hotel in Msheireb and can be missed if you don’t know the way. It is an oasis in the desert, where a tired art traveler can breathe in fresh air. Not literally, as it is situated next to a construction site! But the school, painted lime green, takes you back a few decades and away from the glass skyscrapers of West Bay or from the popular white cube galleries of Katara. For someone like me, who loves heritage, I felt at home, a place where I could be myself, without being reminded again and again that I couldn’t touch the Works of Art.
Msheireb Arts Center houses an initiative called the ‘Sadaa Al Thikrayat‘, which translates as the Echo Memory Project. It is a project that documented the life of the people who stayed in Msheireb before it underwent transformation. One of the programs that they initiated was to involve various artists who painted the area just before it was torn; thus, resulting in a catalogue that documents the last few moments of a culturally rich neighbourhood. The Echo Memory Project started collecting artefacts from these once occupied houses which are now stored in thousands in this center, a few in a not-so-white cube gallery and the rest in store rooms, at various stages of documentation or restoration. The Collection itself is quite varied…from iron grills from doors and windows to old photographs, from broken chairs to computer monitors, locks, keys, crockery, passports…anything that had a human element attached to it. Whenever completed, the project will showcase personal and collective histories of the people who once lived here- from rich merchant to immigrant labour from South Asia…all that have played an important role in the development of Qatar.
The school has a central courtyard with two beautiful trees, that have survived any cruel intentions…and invites you to sit in one of many benches, far away from the city’s glamour and the scorching sun. Msheireb Arts Center is filled with nostalgia, of a forgotten past, maybe personal or of a nation. It is a living testimony of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, who as an Emir had the vision to create schools and hospitals and looked at education as a means of creating responsible future citizens. Like the rest of Msheireb, it seems that time came to a standstill here.
As Qatar undergoes radical transformation and landmarks keep changing by the day, I hope that Msheireb Arts Center can ward off the evil eye, as the moment it disappears, it will take away the ‘aura’ that defines it and with it an identity that can be considered as a true Qatari heritage.