Islamic design
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The household on its lot
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A new house in Doha

This page looks briefly at the way people live within and around their houses. It is not easy to generalise, but I have done so as it is important for designers to understand, what is likely to be for them, a different way of life.

It has been difficult to organise these notes into easily comprehended sections. Because of this there is a certain amount of repetition and, perhaps, contradictions on various pages. Some of the information that will be contained on this page is likely to relate to information on at least the pages dealing with socio-cultural issues, pressures and the Gulf architecture and Islamic urban design pages, as well as those dealing with design briefs and design elements. Other pages may also have related information. The purpose of this page is to concentrate just on the house and the way in which the house is used. Again I should remind you that these notes were started over thirty years – a generation ago, though there has been some updating…

Over the past thirty years Qataris have been building for themselves their first modern houses, and this will continue as new families have need of separate accommodation, and as circumstances change. Normally the house provides for all the immediate family, but it is often required to accommodate parents, unmarried sisters and, occasionally, orphans who have been adopted within the Islamic tradition. On the face of it, this may seem onerous from a Western perspective, but there are many aspects of this form of extended household that are beneficial to those living within it, a system that incorporates many of the principles both of Islam as well as traditional tribal habits.

There is certainly a trend for couples to move to new houses and break the tradition of communal living; this is often a reflection of social trends and the accessibility to finances that weren’t available a generation ago. In this case the number of people living in the house are likely to be significantly smaller than traditional house populations.

In addition there is the possibility that a man may have up to four wives at any one time. Although there are some Muslims who have this number, it is relatively unusual for a number of reasons. All must be provided for equitably. Most people have financial constraints and, despite the understanding that a wife may find herself with another wife living in the same house, there are obvious psychological and social problems to be dealt with by the extended family, and the appropriate accomodations made. This tends to create organisational difficulties when two or more wives are living in a single household. As has been written about elsewhere, the preference is for each wife to have a separate house.

Muslims who take more than one wife do so for social or political reasons, not so much for the benefits of an easier run household. Taking more than one wife is known to complicate life and, at the least, it is required that each wife has at least her own room within a house: and, preferably, her own house. Some who can afford it provide a house for each wife and live either in one of the houses or in a separate house, sometimes the majlis building. The complex for this type of life style needs to be quite large including as it must not only the houses for each wife and the majlis, but also all the servants, storage, some form of security and, preferably, a masjid.

There is still a traditional concept of romantic, love which younger Arabs associate with Western society as well as it being an element of Arab and Persian poetry and literature. But most know that, despite this, they are likely to be married within a system of arrangement. This always seems strange to Western sensibilities, but there is a strong argument that couples will grow to love each other with time and, perhaps, form stronger bonds because of it. Whether a marriage is arranged or not there is certainly a number of young couples being married and wishing to live in separate houses, most probably for the status this brings, an arrangement encouraged by government providing funds and land for such housing through the Intermediate and Senior Staff housing initiatives.

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Life within the house

Not only does the scale of the house reflect the funds available for its development but also the character of the family living within it. This is an issue relating to Islam and its view of the attitude to neighbours and the community generally. One of the drawbacks to the way in a which a house is perceived is the fact that the standard Qatari houses have a number of named rooms within them, and an implied life style by virtue both of the names given to the rooms as well as by their physical layout. Because of this and the way in which Qatari households differ, it is difficult to make hard and fast statements about the average house and its occupants over their lifetime within it. Nevertheless, because it is important to have some kind of understanding of the way in which houses are used this section will set out the general manner in which the house is used. A specific programme of use will obviously be required from each client. For the purposes of this study it is assumed that the basic house will suit a married couple with children.

It should also be noted with regard to the manner in which people live and the design of their houses, that there is a proscription in Islam with regard to ostentatious development, in fact ostentatious behaviour in any form is shunned by wahhabisunnis, the backbone of Qatar society. The reason I have mentioned it here is that ostentation is a characteristic of many new buildings, both residential and commercial.

Privacy and security are two of the chief requirements of Qatari houses, as it might be for houses in most parts of the world. This has been dealt with in some detail on the page dealing with security, and elsewhere. But it is worth suggesting some of the general requirements for assuring these qualities.

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Family life

In order to design a house successfully, it is necessary to look at a number of factors. The first is the manner in which Qatari households organise their day. Obviously families differ widely in the details of their day to day life, but there are common patterns that determine the way in which the house is used, as well as some of the planning and organisational details which have to be accommodated within the design of the house and its lot. There can, of course, be no hard and fast rules, but the following description can be taken to be a general description of the normal weekday for a family. I hope it will be of use to those who have no real understanding of life of nationals in Qatar. For the purposes of this study the description of the common day should be read in conjunction with the requirements for prayer set out in the reference page of these notes.

You should also be aware that this note was originally written in the 1970s and, to some extent reflects a life no longer lived. However, it is still correct in many of its general timings so I am leaving it as it stands because it can be seen to show how families lived a generation ago under a system having less disposable income, and less influence from the outside world. As such it also represents the working of a stricter society than now exists.

The elements that have changed, and are changing, are discussed elsewhere, mainly on the socio-cultural pages but in general terms the three main influences on the pattern of living in and around the house have to do with

  • increased access outside the house to work and education, particularly for women,
  • far greater levels of disposable income and the retail and entertainment areas constructed in which to spend that income, and
  • looser religious, tribal and familial bonds governing the behaviour of men and, particularly, women who now have greater freedom to move outside the house.

The freeing of moraes and increase in wealth have had, and are likely to have, a number of effects both inside and outside the house. The latter are dealt with elsewhere but they have the effect of changing behaviour in two ways:

  • less time is spent within the house, and
  • activities outside the house increasingly reflect on activities and artifacts inside it.

It is worth emphasising the effect that access to tertiary education and the massive proliferation of retail activities have on encouraging people to spend time outside the house. This has an effect on mealtimes and the need or desire to stagger them to take account of education and work hours. It also puts pressure on families in encouraging them not to eat at the same times, or together.

In addition to this, play types and patterns have changed reflecting both commercial pressures as well as the provision by government of recreational facilities.

All these issues lead to pressures to increase the spatial requirements of houses and the areas immediately associated with them. The main effect of these is for the inhabitants of new buildings to require

  • larger external spaces in order to provide for informal and even formal recreation, accommodation for servants, animals, garaging for vehicles and boats, and landscaping,
  • larger internal spaces in order to enjoy an expanding lifestyle; this applies to both the young and old and suggests, at the least, larger bedrooms as well as a need to assure private access to family bedrooms by visiting female friends,
  • improved privacy in order to be able to study at primary, secondary and tertiary educational levels, as well as not to disturb others when engaged in noise-creating activities such as when using audio-visual equipment and the like,
  • more storage in order to provide areas in which a variety of items can be kept safely ranging from vehicles, camping equipment and sports equipment, through luggage, wardrobes and safes, to food and its preparation,
  • increased provision for display and storage for a wide variety of items, particularly in bedrooms and bathrooms, and
  • rooms that are modern in concept such as those set aside for games, cinema, exercise and the like.

Hours of the day

So, bearing the foregoing in mind, here is a brief description of the way Qataris lived through the day a generation ago and, to some extent, still do:


The Muslim begins his day with prayers just before dawn, the morning or al fajr prayers. Those who pray at this time may return to bed or have a light breakfast that has been prepared the night before. It is probable that only the man of the house and his wife will pray at this time.

05.00 - 07.00.

This is the busiest time of the day for the family. All members are occupied in rising, ablutions, prayers, the taking of breakfast and preparing to leave for work and school. It is common for women to rise first in order to begin the preparations for breakfast. Men rise to pray at dawn and wives may join them or pray later with the children. Where the household employs servants it is usual for the servants to prepare the breakfast, although this is always under the supervision of the women of the household. Children go to school by car either with their father or with a driver, but there is provision for bussing children to school and this will entail their leaving to wait at a nearby collection point.


During this period the house will contain only the women of the house who are not working – usually the wife, elderly parents, children under school age and servants, the latter of whom are generally female but may also include male servants. Only a few Qatari women who are not yet married work. Women visit each other’s homes during this time, provided that the other chores of the house can be accommodated. It is the time for general housekeeping, cleaning, washing and preparation for lunch. The latter can take a significant time depending upon the meal to be cooked. Although traditional cuisine is relatively simple, the standard meal – machboos, particularly if it prepared using a whole sheep – can take the morning to prepare, cook and supervise. Its proper preparation and presentation is the specific concern and responsibility of the wife. During this time it is not uncommon for some of the meal to be sent to nearby relations for their mid-day meal.


Lunch is eaten after the morning – al dhuhr – prayers, or when school children and those working return home. To a large extent this depends upon the status of the head of the household. The higher it is the more likely he will provide food for guests, members of his wider family and people dependent upon him who will come to the house to eat with him. Whether he eats with them or with his immediate family is something which is determined by custom. Usually he will eat with guests, occasionally with relations, but rarely with dependents. The majority of men eat with their family but this practice is being undermined by school hours and the proliferation of fast food outlets.


Usually, and particularly in summer, there is no work at this time. Recently this has changed with government leading the way and working in the afternoon. Adults will normally sleep in summer after the meal. The younger members of the family will play in or near the house. At the end of the afternoon there are the afternoon prayers – al asr – which traditionally mark the end of the working day and the beginning of time with the family. It is considered to be the most important of the five daily prayers but modern work practices conflict with the traditional timing of this prayer.


This is an active time for the community. Men who have business leave the house to go to return to their offices or to those of their associates or friends. Men will also visit the suq, perhaps with their sons, as may women although this practice has yet to gain common acceptance throughout all levels of the society. The suq generally closes at the time of the al maghrib prayers. Women will also visit friends or relations and children will play or begin their homework.


The sunset prayer – al maghrib – traditionally marks the end of the day and its activities. The family will come together some time after the prayer for a light meal or will take their meals separately depending upon their work and their intentions for the evening. Many families watch the television during this time, either the regular programmes or a video usually orientated towards the children’s tastes. It is common for Qatari children to have to continue with their homework as they generally have high levels of homework set for them. Men and women will visit friends and relations in the area during this time which includes the time of the night prayer – al isha – marking the beginning of the night.


Men and women will visit friends and relations in the neighbourhood at this period, and visiting may continue after the al isha prayers, although mainly by the men. The use of the majlis as a social device has been described elsewhere. Visiting the most senior member of the qabila will be timed to follow the Al Isha prayers. After business or duty has been carried out it is normal for the men to move on to other majaalis, becoming progressively less formal and more recreational as the evening progresses.

Playing cards in the evening

Younger men will end the evening in a friends house – often taken in turns – where they will play cards, talk, watch videos or even travel by car round the streets in search of friends, events of interest or excitement. Although the suq used to close at the time of the Al Mughreb prayers, some parts of the town, for instance Feriq As Sudd, would have shopping open until the al isha prayers or later. Of course, the massive proliferation of retail centres has created a wide variety of places to visit. Areas such as these represent an extremely strong attraction to large proportions of the population, both the expatriate population element but also to the national population. Nevertheless, many younger Qataris – men and women – can be seen shopping at this time, particularly for clothes, cakes and sweets as well as watching what is going on around them. It is an opportunity for the young to see each other in circumstances which are not particularly socially improper.

As warned above, though still correct in many of its aspects, this information is to some extent historical and has to be understood within the understanding of the changes that have and are taking place in Qatar and the region.

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Hospitality is an essential aspect of traditional Arab society, one that has maintained its importance to this day. See also notes on hospitality and related issues. In residential developments there are four possible areas of the house and its plot where the male guest is received and time spent in the discussions which are so important to the dissemination of information. These are the

Collectively these are all forms of the majlis, a word with its root in a sitting function, but also includes formal social organisations where important issues are brought, discussed, and decisions reached and published formally or informally.

Open majlisbaraha or hiyala

This area is the original form of the majlis where there was not sufficient wealth or a strong enough degree of permanence to permit the construction of a covered majlis.

The baraha is an area of levelled ground, cleared of stones, large enough to take the normal numbers of guests sitting peripherally and able to converse easily with each other. It often has a covering of sand although some of the modern versions of baraha are paved or even have an unsuitable macadam finish that tends to make them hot in summer. Usually the area is raised slightly from the surrounding land in order to protect it from flooding. Lights are sometimes strung round it if there is insufficient ambient light from an adjacent building. Traditionally, the lighting would have been provided with kerosene lamps or by the light of a fire.

When in use the baraha has carpets or rugs cast on it and, upon this mattresses – dowaashek – are sometimes placed together with the hard cushions – masaanid – that are required in order to be able to lean upon in comfort. Some baraha have developed a form of permanent seating associated with them known as a dikka. This is a high seat constructed of timber, although sometimes it is formed as an element of the adjacent wall, and in the same materials. At each end it has a low arm to mark its end as well as to permit the user to lean upon it in a similar manner to that of a misnad.

The baraha is only suitable for use in those parts of the year when the weather permits. Rain prevents its normal operation as can high temperatures or humidity but, as majaalis are mainly held in the evenings, the baraha can be used throughout most of the year. One final point to bear in mind is that the baraha is, in many of its aspects, the urban continuity of the seating arrangement that is used in the desert.

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External or internal majlis

Diagrammatic illustration of an ordinary modern majlis

This is the normal requirement of all Arabs in which to entertain guests, and will be used in addition to the optional baraha. Its main benefit is that, as it is an enclosed room, it can be air-conditioned. It occurs in one of two forms: either as

  • a separate structure associated with the main entrance to the site, or as a
  • room within the main house.

Where it occurs as a separate structure it should preferably have, associated with it, an entrance hall – madkhul, and washing facilities – hamaam as it is likely that guests will also eat there. Some Qataris develop a majlis complex that includes not only the above, but also a ghurfat al-sufra – dining room, maktab – study or office and, if possible, a guest suite in which visitors can stay. This suite will comprise a bedroom with separate or associated sitting area, together with a bathroom en suite. This latter facility may also be used by the man of the house.

The function of the majlis is as a place in which to receive and entertain visitors or guests. Normally guests come to the majlis for one or a combination of three reasons. It is the place where

  • the hierarchy of the family or tribe is informally recognised by regular visits and where their family business is transacted,
  • it is used more formally to put a case for hearing, direction or resolution to an important member of the community, and
  • the majlis is the place in which males of the family and their peers exchange information and news, and are able to relax.

A particularly important function of the majlis is as a setting for the introduction of the younger, male members of the society. Boys from the age of about eight years old will occasionally come to majaalis with their father and will observe and, if they wish, participate to some extent in the discussions of the day. It is interesting to watch this as there is considerable tolerance shown to them in this expression of opinion. It is a chance both for the boys to learn something of the issues and standards of the day, but also to witness and learn the manner in which the society goes about its business and to gain an understanding by observation of their family’s standing within the society. By the same token it is also the place where society generally can observe the boys who will, one day, take their positions within the social structure and where they can judge the children’s development, characteristics and capabilities for future roles within the society.

The majlis is used in the same manner as the baraha in that seating is arranged peripherally with the guests either sitting on a dowshek with a misnad upon which to lean or, alternatively, guests will sit on armchairs and sofas arranged round the edges of the room. The choice of seating preference is dependent upon the customs and aspirations of the owner, but it is noticeable that even when guests start an evening sitting on modern armchairs, they have often slipped down onto the carpet by the end of the evening for comfort. The modern armchair or sofa is easier to sit into or to struggle out of, as well as giving a better viewpoint of the room; its disadvantage might be the progressive formality within the home which it enforces upon a society with a much closer concept of personal space.

Where modern furniture is purchased it is often bought in sets of two armchairs and a matching sofa – the grouping in which they are customarily sold. Consequently the arrangement of seating has to take this into consideration. Modern armchairs are usually over-scaled and difficult to fit into rooms. Where the owner can afford it, only armchairs are purchased which cuts down on the number of individuals who can be accommodated within the room. The smallest number of people for whom seating will be required is from twelve to sixteen.

In front of the seating, and at intervals suited to the main use of the room, there will be low tables for the use of the guests or for display. Small tables can also be located between seats, but this considerably reduces the numbers who can be accommodated in a majlis.

Some majaalis contain a coat stand which is usually used only for the host’s bisht. When guests arrive wearing an bisht they will either continue to wear it as they sit, or they will fold it and keep it beside them on the side of an armchair or the sofa.

In some houses there is a requirement for other items of furniture such as display cabinets or, more usually, televisions. Where this is needed it usually implies that the owner will spend more time relaxing with close friends than participating in more formal majaalis. If a television is required then there will need to be space for a video recorder as well as space for a large number of videotapes. There is also the need for a radio, usually a portable model, as well as a calendar. These last two items are related to timekeeping and prayer.

Despite the preponderance of mobile telephones now in use, a land-line telephone is essential in the majlis and may have extensions to more than one location within the majlis to suit the different seating preferences of the owner. The main unit will be located beside the host where he can receive and make calls. The number of this telephone will be different from those in his house and will not be an extension.

Where extensions are used they should always be within sight of each other so that there will be no possibility of overhearing. It is not uncommon for there to be more than one telephone within a majlis with different numbers to permit guests to make calls without tying up the main unit. Where this is the case there may also be a bar to making overseas call on it.

Lighting, by preference, is normally from the ceiling in the form of central, pendant chandeliers. Sometimes it is supplemented by cove lighting where the size of the room permits and, usually, there is insufficient room for table lights though they are a feature of some of the larger majaalis. Formal majaalis virtually always operate with artificial lighting, even when the curtains are, rarely, not drawn. Apart from the practical need to light a large room with relatively small windows, there is a strong psychological argument for having central lighting to illuminate those sitting on the periphery.

The majlis is always air-conditioned, usually by wall or floor mounted units as central air-conditioning systems are considered expensive due to the relatively low cost of electricity, though this is changing. The main problem associated with majaalis is that Qataris like to have the entrance doors of both the majlis and madkhul open in a demonstration of hospitality. Where it is necessary to keep either or both of them closed there is still a significant incursion of hot, humid air every time a guest enters or leaves the majlis. This creates problems of condensation on cold surfaces near the entrance or on the air-conditioning units themselves.

It is unusual for a majlis to have pictures on the wall as there is a general prohibition against the display of representative art in this part of the Arab world. However, it is not uncommon to have Quranic inscriptions in the form of worked cloth pictures or hangings and, in the houses of some people – particularly members of the Royal Family – for there to be portraits of the Ruler, father or grandfather. In less formal majaalis it is not uncommon to see representative art, usually illustrations of mountains and forests though I have also seen carpets with dancing girls woven into them.

The majlis is normally located on the right hand side of an entrance hall, and the entrance doors to it are preferred in the centre of the wall in which they are located in order that a degree of symmetry can be obtained. The host generally prefers to sit either at the centre of the wall opposite the doorway on more formal occasions, or in a corner for less formal meetings. In both cases his main guest will usually sit to his right. Often the seats of the host and main guest will be distinguished by a slight separation from the other seats in a majlis or, at least, by their design or colour. When this arrangement is used – particularly on occasions when there is a degree of formality to the majlis – the seats immediately to the side of the host and guest will be left vacant to give a degree of formality and privacy to the proceedings. Where privacy for conversation is required it is normal to whisper. Unusually, or where there is a specific reason for it – perhaps when confidential telephone calls must be made, the host and guest will move to the study or office for a period of time.

Although seating is peripheral it is considered impolite in the Arab world not to face the person who is talking to you. Conversations are held with seated neighbours by turning towards them, and people also regularly converse across the majlis. In this way much of the conversation can be heard and joined in, providing a way for all to learn and discuss the news of the day. Conversation can be loud and Arabs will shout to make a point which can be misconstrued by Westerners as a display of temper. Arabs customarily move inside the interpersonal zone comfortable to Westerners, and also tend to touch each other in reinforcing bonding and social links. It is considered impolite to show the soles of the foot to an Arab, an important consideration when sitting on the floor.

Visitors and guests to a majlis enter leaving their shoes either at the entrance to the house or at the entrance to the majlis and, giving the customary courtesy greeting – assalamu aleikum– ‘peace be upon you’, move straight across to the host to shake hands with him and then the other members of the majlis. They will then take their place within the majlis either with their host if their status warrants it or they have business with him, or with a particular friend, or at a place they judge to be correct from their social standing. The amount of time they spend in the majlis will depend upon a number of factors, but a minimum of ten to fifteen minutes is necessary to avoid appearing rude. On leaving it is usual to shake hands again with host who, if the guest is important, will escort him to the door of the majlis or, even the front door.

After the guest has entered the majlis a servant will bring coffee in a della – the traditional brass coffee pot – and pour a small amount into the bottom of a small cup – finjaan – which is about the size of a Western egg cup. Guests accept this in their right hand and the servant will wait or return to refill the cup until the guest wants no more. Normally three cups would be considered enough, but Arabs often drink only one. Returning the cup to the servant, the guest will shake it slightly to signify that he doesn’t want any more, and it is impolite of a guest to refuse a proffered full cup. The coffee is followed with a small glass of tea – shy ahmar – red tea, which is served without milk but with a lot of sugar. Occasionally sugar is provided in the form of sugar lumps loose on the saucer but, more often, the sugar is already in the tea when it is received. In summer, a glass of water is usually also given to be drunk with the tea, though more recently this has been substituted for a small, plastic bottle of cold water. Sometimes the tea is served with mint in it and, in the winter months, zanjabil – a tea made with ginger and served with milk and sugar – is sometimes presented. In the summer months hosts will also offer their guests fruit juices or proprietary soft drinks after the coffee and tea.

If the guests warrant it, the host will ensure that a midkhan is brought round the guests by a servant. The midkhan is an incense burner and, at one time, Qatar was noted for its midkhan carved from alabaster. Nowadays they are made from a timber frame and have various metal plates fixed on it to make them both decorative and functional. On the open midkhan are placed some pieces of smouldering charcoal and a’oud – or frankincense, an extremely expensive aromatic wood – is burned on top of this. The aromatic smoke coming from the top of the midkhan is wafted by the guests under their ghutrah – headdress – and bisht – cloak – to leave a lingering, pleasant smell. The midkhan will be brought round periodically as and when the numbers of guests are thought to warrant it by the host.

As a general rule Qataris will visit family or friends every night, first passing some time in the more important majaalis. Smaller, more informal majaalis tend to meet every night, usually after courtesy visits have been paid to the more formal majaalis. Friends will spend the latter part of the evening here, sitting, talking, watching television and keeping in touch with other friends by telephone, and playing cards. Often a group of friends will take it in turns to use their house for this majlis, and the same majlis will, in effect, move from house to house.

During the holy month of Ramadthan the majaalis will be used every night, and food will be provided for all visitors. Host and guests will usually stay up until the – al fajr – first prayers, when they will go to bed so that some of the day will be spent asleep. Government work hours begin later than the rest of the year to take this into account. With Ramadthan falling within the summer period, working a full day without food or water can be extremely difficult for Muslims.

Diagrammatic illustration of formal majlis

Finally, here is a notional sketch of a formal but, perhaps, small majlis. It is the type that might be associated with Heads of State, Ministers, Ambassadors and the like and would be only used under formal conditions. In this illustration, the owner of the majlis sits opposite the entrance, a low table between him and his chief guest who sits to his right. I have shown a seat immediately to his left, but that degree of intimacy would only be likely under certain conditions, more probably there would be a gap or a small table to create a little distance between the two seats. Instead of having tables in front of the users of the majlis i have used incidental tables between the chairs. The reason for this is that there is likely to be queue of guests moving around the majlis greeting sitting guests and tables tend to get in the way of movement. If there is a formal greeting it is likely that the owner of the majlis will stand as a queue of guests move into and around the majlis. The owner of the majlis is likely to have a telephone on his table and, perhaps, a flag of State or similar item, the only other item on the tables usually being tissue boxes in decorative containers. The style of chair used here is commonly based on French and Italian models. They tend to be well padded, the wood of the frame being gilded. There is unlikely to be a television or radio though there may be floral displays or planting with, perhaps, a portrait on the wall of the Head of State. This is a room only for receiving guests formally, those using it moving on to more informal majaalis afterwards, there being a constant flow into and out of the room.

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Coffee making

The making and presentation of Arabic coffee – qahwa – is a strong Arabic tradition and the coffee making area was always an integral part of tent life, being located just outside the area in which the guests were received, the coffee being made by the men of the family. Coffee is prepared in a manqala - a brass portable coffee preparation device which permits fire to be made of wood or charcoal within a room as well as in the open. All houses should preferably have an area for making coffee and, sometimes, they are feature of the majlis itself. Where it can be afforded there will be a coffee room near the majlis in which all the dellaat, kettles and coffee preparations are stored on shelves and, in the corner, there will be an area for the fires where water will be boiled and dallaat kept warm. Where this can not be afforded, the coffee is prepared in the family kitchen and kept warm in insulated flasks.

The coffee beans used to make the traditional coffee are green and are prepared with a hawan wa yad al hawan – a pestle and mortar, then brewed with water in the della having been mixed with the spice hail – cardamon. hail is expensive, and it is a sign of generosity that there should usually be a significant amount of it in the coffee. In order to prevent too much of the grounds and hail being deposited in a guest’s finjaan, a twist of fibres are usually placed in the spout of the della to filter them out as the coffee is poured into the finjaan.

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Washing facilities

There is a note on washing facilities relating to prayer on the page looking at some aspects of Islamic architecture. Some of those notes will relate to these but I thought it useful to make a note on the use of water in Qatari houses at a more general level as it seems not to have been covered elsewhere.

Two generations ago water was a rare commodity in the peninsula. Those with good wells were able to enjoy a supply of relatively clean water but those living in urban situations, particularly near the coast, faced the twin problems of contamination from waste products as well as from saline inundation, the latter an increasing problem as extraction drew in sea water.

A donkey-drawn water cart

The water that was drawn up within Doha became increasingly poor in quality and had to be strained through cloth in order to remove the larger particulates and contaminants. Older Qataris will tell you that it was not uncommon to drink water through their ghutrah in order to filter the water, a practice I have witnessed on camping trips. Because of this, water was brought into the towns from sweet water wells and distributed as a relatively precious resource. The photograph here shows a donkey cart with improvised water tank being brought in from the desert to Doha where it would deliver to those with a standing order or those hearing the seller’s cry in the street.

When water became a common commodity, and was delivered by the State free, it was used with abandon being allowed to run free with no sense of waste. In households it was common to see water taps left on, and this was particularly so in the washrooms associated with dining areas in houses.

Following a meal in a majlis or ghurfat al-sufra, diners move straight to a washroom in order to clean their hands, getting up from the meal as they finish. Usually the washroom contains standard wash hand basins, the number dependent upon the size of the room and the prestige of the owner, and where the taps are likely to be turned on prior to the meal by the owner or a servant in order that the diners do not have to use the taps with food on their hands.

Wash rooms are nearly always tiled on floors and walls, the floor containing a drain which allows the floor to be washed down regularly as well as water spillage to be drained away. These wash rooms can be extremely wet places at the end of a meal and care needs to be taken to ensure that water is not trailed through to carpeted areas if they are adjacent. Generally this is not a problem as terrazzo or marble tiles tend to be the floor finish of choice.

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The private side of the house

As a general rule, most of the house should be considered to be private. It is only those areas to which male guests are invited that should be seen to be within the public or semi-public realm. Although I have classified the sitting room and saala as being in the private side of the house, the fact that women guests and family use them might appear to make them, in Western terms, part of the public realm. But this is not so. All areas in which women live, work and visit are a part of the private side of the house. Men should not normally use them. Though the men of the house have access to these areas, they have to be careful themselves not to see female guests. Where it is not possible to move without coming upon women, I have seen women sit and cover themselves completely to avoid being looked at.

Meeting – women

Qatari families are matrifocal. The women are the centre of the home and family life. A lot of women visit each other daily and spend time both in helping with the running and organisation of the families’ houses, as well as in dealing with the issues of the family that are their within province. Because of this, much of the control of the family is exercised from the women’s area of the house. In essence there are three areas where the women of a house meet their friends and other members of the family:

  • the saala or family room,
  • the ghurfat al jaluws or sitting room, and the
  • sitting area, usually on the first floor and associated with the bedrooms.

Family room – saala

The saala is, in many senses, the women’s equivalent of the men’s majlis. It is the room in which the woman of the house will entertain women visitors to her house, and is usually the area which she will use in the day as her base for running the activities of the household – though it has to be admitted that the location of this focus is more fluid than a specific location suggests. Because of this it combines two functions, although its layout and decoration tends to be similar to a majlis with peripheral seating and side tables.

Women arriving in the house as guests seem to have a more informal life in the saala than men enjoy in their majlis. However, when the saala is used as a majlis on the more formal occasions such as the Eid, then the activities resemble more the formal meetings in the majlis with similar protocols observed between arriving and departing guests and the hostess, though the colour of clothes and the presence of children certainly gives the saala a more informal place than the majlis. Coffee and tea are served as with the men, a midkhan is brought round, and large boxes of chocolates, glacé fruits and similar sweets are handed round. Melon seeds and nuts are usually placed in bowls for the guests, and fruit juices are also available, as are proprietary soft drinks.

Because it is the room upon which all the activities of the family side of the house are centred, there are often a wide diversity of activities associated with it created by young children of both sexes as well as women of a range of ages. The room is best situated where it can control the activities of the house, including those of the family garden. Where there is both a sitting room and a saala there is often a sense of duality or ambiguity in the layout of the house.

Some Qataris express a preference for their houses to be laid out in such a way that the saala is situated at the foot of the stairs to the first floor as, from this location, it is easier for an eye to be kept on movements within the house. There is also a geometric reason for this. With a large number of spaces to be found within a house, and with a relatively un-articulated external house wall, a natural consequence of the organisation of rooms tends to recommend that the staircase hall double as a room. As an extension of this type of planning, the staircase is often associated with the women’s or family entrance. In these cases the entrance hall is enlarged and attempts made to incorporate into it the necessary seating for a sitting room. It is rare that this is successful as the number of doors needing to have access out of it, combined with the staircase, leave little room for effectively arranged seating unless the hall is extremely large. In addition to this difficulty, the lack of a lobby to the outside means that those sitting in this room can anticipate nuisance from the heat and humidity in the summer time each time the door is opened. In the winter months, similar problems will be associated with the cold.

Another problem arises if male guests are likely to enter the house when there is a majlis within it. In this circumstance women are unable either to use this space or to move through it though, if the staircase is the only means of access to the first floor, and if it is necessary to move through it, then women will have to cover themselves as they pass within sight of the men in the majlis. This is not always acceptable.

However, the saala has a degree of formality to it and it is in this respect it is similar to the traditional northern English parlour.

Sitting room.

This form of the majlis approximates to the Western notion of a sitting room in that it is used by all the family as well as by guests. It can also be thought equivalent to the old form of English parlour in that it can have a degree of formality to it. The reasons for developing a sitting room – ghurfat al jaluws – rather than a majlis reflect the cost of providing a separate majlis, the degree of informality of the owner in his relationships with peers, family and society and, perhaps, the degree of his Westernisation. Its great disadvantage is that it brings male guests right into the heart of the house and, by the same token, it precludes the use of the sitting room by the family when guests are there. In some houses it combines both a sitting and an eating area and is very much a family-oriented arrangement.

The sitting room is usually furnished with suites of armchairs and sofas. In a small house the owner would hope to have at least two sofas and four armchairs together with side or front tables, display units, television and video recorder. It is also normal to have hi-fi units in the sitting room. The less formal the need for its use, the more personal effects there are likely to be within it. There may be pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor, and objects such as model dhows and souvenirs on display. It is unusual to find a large number of books in a sitting room as the market for books is not yet as sophisticated in Qatar as it is in the West. However, there are often books and it is not uncommon to see sets of encyclopaedia and, of course, the Quran. Provision will have to be made for lamp standards and table lights. Around the room there will be same kinds of things as are seen in Western living rooms: a television, radio cassette players and their cassettes or, nowadays CD players and CDs, magazines and newspapers, boxes of tissues, flowers and so on, but there will not be recreational or functional activities as there might be in the Western counterpart other than, perhaps, games consoles. Large boxes of sweets are often on display on the side tables.

Arrangement of the sitting room is generally similar to that of a majlis with peripheral seating. It is not usual to have seating focussed on the television as is often the case in Western living room layouts even where the television is used a lot. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the traditional importance of conversation in the Arab world, and the need to carry out many of their activities within a communal framework.

Sitting area

This is normally situated at first floor level at the head of the staircase. In this location it is more directly related to the immediate family of the house, although many female guests are brought up to it. The reason for this is probably due either to the actual or the psychological lack of privacy for the women within the house and its plot. Sitting here also distances the family from the household activities associated with the kitchen which can be both noisy and a source of smells for those engaged in other activities within the house.

I have also seen circulation spaces on the ground floor used as a sitting area when the house is large and the circulation areas are similarly scaled. Both in the sitting area and the sitting room there needs to be an element of contact with the activities of the house related particularly to cooking, but also to other activities such as cleaning and the care and supervision of children.


In many families the kitchen – matbakh – is the centre of activities in that it is the place where the women of the house will spend much of their time preparing the meals that are required for their family and guests. If hospitality is important to them, then good food is essential in order that the family is not found wanting in the performance of this important activity. Those who normally use kitchens – mataabakh – will be the members of the immediate family together with the servants of the household. On occasion they will be joined by members of the extended family either socialising while necessary work is being carried out, or participating in the preparation of meals. This might be particularly the case where a mother will come to supervise the food her son might be eating, or assuring herself that her daughter is providing food to the standard she feels necessary. Not only will there need to be access to the house, there will have to be good access to the various storage areas as well as to the outside as some food preparation and other activities are likely to take place there.

This page deals mainly with the way in which houses are used. Although there are details of kitchen design here, it is worth pointing out here some of the problems associated with kitchens here as they affect the way in which the kitchen is used by the family.

Although the advent of fast food and a wide variety of work and school times affects the way in which meals are taken, the kitchen is an important element in the house. Its operation still has important resonance with the manner in which the Holy Quran establishes the roles of women as central to family life, and so retains its position as a focal space within a household.

There is one detail worth mentioning here, and that relates to the way in which women dress nowadays. The increase in disposable wealth has meant that women wear more fashionable and expensive clothes, particularly the abaya which now tends to be heavily decorated. But the dresses worn beneath it are also more expensive. While some women will wear a form of housecoat, there is a reluctance to change which has repercussions on the way in which the kitchen operates. At its simplest it means that the kitchen seems to be used less by younger women in the family and, perhaps, more by servants and older women. Although this suggests that there may be a similar movement as there is in the West towards pre-packaged meals and fast food, there is an obvious conflict with the requirement for women to provide meals for men and guests, and this tends to remain traditional with machboos being the main cooking style.

Finally, I should mention here that each family has its own recipes for important meals such as machboos, and which tend to be jealously guarded.

Main kitchen

The main kitchen – matbakh al-ra’yyis – will contain all those elements common in Western kitchens, though there will be some differences. There is more on the design of kitchens here.

There are a variety of problems associated with storage and the amounts needing to be stored, but one particular issue should be noted. With the large amounts of soft drinks consumed by children, particularly, refrigerators or coolers that contain them tend to be opened constantly, with a concomitant loss of cooling effectiveness. Where possible it is beneficial to have a number of refrigerators set aside for keeping drinks cool, and they should all be located outside the kitchen in order to minimise access to the kitchen to gain access to them.

Four particular products of an Arab kitchen are problematic: noise, heat, humidity, and smell – none of which are liked in the public spaces of a house.

The noise is a consequence of three factors. Firstly, there is the use of metallic cooking utensils, and the universal detailing of kitchens with hard materials that reflect and focus sound, making both the kitchen and nearby spaces difficult to enjoy. Secondly, there is the need to work with the doors often open in order that members of the family can move between their sitting areas and the kitchen in the performance of all those activities necessary to run and support the activities of the family. Thirdly, there is the constant sound of women talking loudly as they carry out all these activities. Only the planning of the house, the detailing of walls, doors and windows and the specification of materials can ameliorate this problem.

Heat is a product of the cooking processes, and it exacerbates the difficulties of cooking in an extremely hot region. Whereas in the West there tends to be a change in diet in hot months, where interiors are air-conditioned and there is a wide variety of foodstuffs available throughout the year, this is not necessarily the case and so there is a continuing need to prepare hot meals.

In addition to the heat there is the associated problem of dealing with high humidities in the kitchen, again both as a result of the cooking processes as well as the often high humidity of the region. The normal manner of dealing with this is to employ a separate air-conditioning system for the kitchen. It is essential that this is not connected to the main air-conditioning of the house, assuming that a central system is employed. In the summer months both heat and humidity are made worse by the necessity to use a door to the outside in the movement of family and servants to and from external storage areas, their quarters and external preparation and washing areas.

Heat and smell are a problem in many kitchens both in the Gulf and elsewhere, but it seems to be smell that the Gulf Arabs dislike most. The reason for this may be due to the greater importance which Arabs place on olefactory information in their general lives than we do in the West. The solutions for dealing with smell rely on much the same mechanical processes as those for dealing with heat and humidity. However, significant assistance can be given to this problem by considering planning layouts, fresh air intakes to the building, micro-climatic conditions around the building and planting.

It should also be noted that refuse areas are a source of smells and should be kept away from buildings where possible. It is also useful to air-condition them to slow down the rate of degeneration of organic material.

Secondary or serving kitchen

Invariably associated with the sitting area is a small kitchen which is used to serve both those using the sitting area as well as the bedrooms on the first floor of the house. The main kitchen in a house is generally large and well equipped and many Qatari families are reluctant to use it for the production of snacks and drinks, particularly when it is situated at a distance from the sitting areas.

The serving kitchen is not particularly large and is used mainly by the family as well as by servants. It will contain hobs, sink, refrigerator, working surfaces and storage for equipment, flatware, crockery and glassware as well as a small range of food staples. It is particularly a source of soft drinks so will contain at least a refrigerator and freezer for ice. As with the main kitchen it must have at least an efficient extractor and, preferably, a separate air-conditioner. There is also the probability that the door to it will be left open and, in most planning, it is situated directly off the sitting area. It is helpful if there is at least a lobby to it and, preferably, no line of sight into it.


Most of the spaces on the first floor of a house come within the private side of the household, the province of the family and a few female guests. Where the house has only a single storey, then the spaces that are not the majlis, a guest dining room or entrance hall, are also part of the private part of the house.

While my comments in the preceding paragraph are essentially correct, the wide availability of electronic and other equipment together with the funds to purchase them means that many of the younger members of the family can afford to buy and use them, often in their bedrooms. This has created a situation in some homes when the young male members of the family would like to invite friends into their rooms to share their interests.

As I have written elsewhere, girls and boys play together with their cousins and friends until the girls are about six years old when there is an attempt to maintain a degree of separation between the sexes, when boys tend to take a dominating role over their sisters, and when their training for later life as men and women really begins. In this sense the private side of the house containing boys’ bedrooms has something of the character of the public side of the house and, where it is possible, should be designed with this in mind. However, it is not an easy issue to deal with as it has much to do with the funds available for house design and the degree of strictness applied by parents. Perhaps more important, it can be said that many new houses, designed to replicate Western houses, tend to be difficult to operate as they do not reflect the issues that have developed over the last generation or so, and which are touched on here.

It is noticeable that the girls of the family are very much under the control of their mother and that the female side of the family appear to have almost total control over the house. As explained earlier, young boys come under the influence of their fathers, following them into the majaalis and other areas as a matter of course. In this sense they seem to have an ambivalent place within the family, often actin in loco parentiswith regard to their sisters, even their older sisters. In their teens, boys can seem increasingly out of place within the family or private side of the household, as sometimes do the men. It is an interesting paradox.

Most of the organisation and separating of boys and girls is effected by parental control as you might anticipate, but often this is made extremely difficult by the house layout. It becomes increasingly difficult as boys and girls become teenagers, and even more so when they reach marriageable age and there is an absolute necessity to maintain privacy for the young women of the house. In these circumstances the young men of the family are unable to have friends come to their bedrooms and they tend to find other parts of the building in which to separate themselves from the female side of the family. Often this is the majlis or its related spaces. Where these spaces are required by the father of the household, the young men have to leave their home in order to find suitable places to meet with their friends, one of the generators of so much activity in the commercial spaces, particularly at night.

en-suite arrangements

This incorporation of en-suite bathroom arrangements into the sleeping quarters of modern Qatari houses is not necessarily the best way of laying out a house. In fact this is also true for houses in the West but not for all the same reasons. Everybody in both the West and Gulf seems to want to have an en-suite bathroom attached to their bedroom, but there are a number of reasons why this is not the best advice to give, for it will not always work as clients believe. Among these reasons are:

  • different sleeping habits of the bedroom’s occupants, practices which change with age and developing or deteriorating relationships,
  • differing concepts of privacy and modesty,
  • the need for privacy in times of illness or menstruation,
  • disturbance caused by noise, smells and light pollution from the bathroom,
  • the difficulties caused by more than one person wanting to use the bathroom at the same time,
  • different attitudes and practices over time,
  • the relationship between the bedroom, bathroom and dressing area together with the associated practices,
  • differing sleep patterns,
  • age differences, and
  • life style.

Many of these will apply to houses for Qataris, but there is also another very important issue which en-suite bathrooms do not address, and that is the religious practices associated with menstruation when a different bathroom might preferably be used, though it may be well suited to religious practices associated with intercourse. I don’t intend to go into details here but suggest that anybody designing a house for Qataris should ensure that they cover the requirements of this part of the house as thoroughly as the client will allow as it is easy to get it wrong. Remember, the fashion for en-suite bathrooms is not necessarily beneficial.

Where space permits the ideal arrangement might be to have separate bedroom suites for both husband and wife or wives, permitting the husband to visit wives, or vice versa. A not uncommon arrangement is to have bedrooms with their en-suite or other arrangements linked by a common sitting room.


There are a number of notes on bathrooms on the page dealing with the more technical side of bathrooms. These should be looked at in parallel with the notes on this page.

Dressing areas

Designers should remember that the relationship between bedroom, bathroom and dressing areas is important to get right, and that this design relationship and detailing might not accord with their training.

At its simplest most Qataris will have a larger wardrobe than their Western counterparts – but there are differences. Generally the amount of clothes to be accommodated reflect the greater disposable income of the region.

With regard to men’s clothing it must be borne in mind that many Qataris will change their thub with their prayers, five times a day. This will also usually mean their underwear as well, this consisting of a vest and sirwal along with socks in winter. Because of this there might be a need for a significant amount of storage for these items of clothing. Generally thiyaab will be kept on shelves, folded, but some prefer to have them hang. Hung or folded, a significant amount of space may be required for these items. The outer cloak, bisht, is also usually folded and a man may have a number of them with at least one for summer and one for winter. The ghutrahkaffiyah and iqal are also easily stored, the first two folded, the latter usually hung.

Sufficient room has to be provided to store shoes and sandals, the range and numbers being difficult to guage, differing widely with individuals as you might expect.

Central stairs to the Museum of Islamic Art

What might not be expected is how many items of male jewellery may be owned and for which adequate provision should be provided. The main items for storing are watches, cuff links, prayer beads and pens. These items may be valuable and are preferably stored in their boxes. Prayer beads, misbah, found in the suq, as this photograph illustrates, come in a wide variety of colours and detailing, some of them being extremely expensive.

In addition to the foregoing there is likely to be sports related clothing and equipment for the younger male members of the family. Where the equipment is large or specialist it is more likely to be kept outside the house. This would apply to items such as those relating to scuba diving, camping and hawking.

Guns and ammunition are likely to be kept inside the house but there is no specific area customary for these items. It would be sensible to follow Western practice which is to have a gun safe for the firearms and with the ammunition kept separately. However, guns are often carried to the desert and they are very familiar items to many who enjoy life there. Some have displays of weapons in rooms such as their study, but I have not come across a general rule for their display and safeguarding. The reason it is mentioned here is that I believe the dressing room is quite a good location for a gun safe, though I am aware this is not the usual practice.

When Muslims pray they also perform a ritual washing. In the house this is customarily carried out in the bathroom associated with the bedroom. Following prayer – and whether or not they are changing some or all of their colthes – they will wish to see themselves in a full length mirror. This should be a part of the dressing area and, if possible, mirrors should be capable of showing them from behind as well as from in front.

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Main bedroom

Just as is true for the other spaces in the house, the space and furniture allocated to the main bedroom will differ considerably in a number of ways. The main two factors governing this will be the cost of building the house and its bedroom allocation, and the degree to which Islamic traditions are followed by husband and wife. This last issue has particular relevance to the relationship between bathroom and bedroom as noted above.

Commonly, houses for Qatari families, at least at Senior Staff level, will have en-suite arrangements for the main bedroom, a design relationship which follows Western practice. Where it can be afforded, this might also be the arrangement for other bedrooms. But there are difficulties with this arrangement where a bedroom is shared, either between husband and wife, or between sisters or brothers.

Where there is an en-suite arrangement, an effort should be made to create a lobby between the bathroom door and the bedroom in order to reduce or eliminate some of the problems described above. Preferably this lobby will have two doors to assist resolving the issues listed above. A dressing area with wardrobes, preferably built in, would be one way of creating this, but it is not the only way.

On another page there are notes on ancillary issues such as dressing areas, toilets and so on that should be read in conjunction with the notes here.

Men’s and boys’ bedrooms

Most of the spaces on the first floor of a house come within the private side of the household, the province of the family and a few female guests. Where the house has only a single storey, then the spaces that are not the majlis, a guest dining room or entrance hall, are also part of the private part of the house.

Women’s and girls’ bedrooms

Most of the spaces on the first floor of a house come within the private side of the household, the province of the family and a few female guests. Where the house has only a single storey, then the spaces that are not the majlis, a guest dining room or entrance hall, are also part of the private part of the house.

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The psychology of courtyard life

A notional view inside a large courtyard

Much of the thrust of these notes has been to promote the perceived benefits of courtyard housing arrangements compared with those enjoyed with the more modern villa design. However, it has to be pointed out that there are a number of issues with courtyard housing when it is compared with, particularly, the life experienced in and around the traditional khaima. This sketch illustrates a bare, undecorated courtyard, and one that is relatively large. Most urban courtyards were smaller and contained other structures that altered their plan form.

The development of courtyard housing was a direct response to a number of needs relating to shelter, protection and the expansion of household sites to accommodate increasing family numbers. Where walls were constructed to provide security – both protective and visual – the wall element that provided that protection also served to prevent views out of the compound at ground level both within and outside the rooms of the development. Only from a roof or a first floor development was it possible to obtain long views, as in the photograph below.

A view from the first floor of an old building at Wakra

Compare the sketch view of a courtyard above with this view taken in Wakra in 1972 from the first floor of a building close to the shore and looking over the silting towards the sea. Despite the enclosed feeling in the room, as well as the barred openings, the view to the sea is invigorating and invites a variety of responses in the viewer ranging from active inspection to passive contemplation. The ability to see into the distance can free the mind compared with the constraints induced within the confines of a courtyard.

A Qatari correspondent recalled the old courtyards with their palm and other trees creating attractive settings for the family, but noted that ‘we had to go into our souls’ in order to understand life and to find inspiration as the courtyard ‘did not provide a lot of external stimulus’. He believes this to be the reason that poetry was so important as a means of expression. He added that it is in summer and winter Qataris need to visit, respectively, the sea and desert in order to be able to reflect on life, and that it is necessary to be able to interact not only with gardens, but also with the skies and sun. This accords with my own experiences both personally and in discussion with Qataris I met, both in the desert and at sea. By extension it might also be the reason that Qataris enjoy the freedom that music brings.

Sunrise from a seaside desert camp Sunrise from a seaside desert camp

The imperative in those early developments was to provide a physically safe haven for family and is one of the factors creating courtyard layouts and their being a feature of traditional Qatari architecture. Visual privacy for the family to go about their daily lives is also a factor, reflecting religious needs. But there is certainly a contrast between the privacy and safety enjoyed within those enclosed spaces created in response to these needs with the feelings Qataris derive when at sea or in the desert. This first photograph, taken from a tent at sunrise, suggests something of the spatial openness contrasting with the courtyard illustrated above, while the photograph below it illustrates the pleasure Qataris have in using the desert to move around and enjoy.

It is obviously impossible to provide long views in the majority of residential properties if privacy is taken into account. But it is possible to raise ceilings, create focussed views from first floors, reduce contrast with reflected light, introduce colour, smells and movement with natural planting and, with a number of other architectural devices, improve the internal environment of the courtyard house to benefit the inhabitants.

more to be written…

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