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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Meet Shams Al-Qassabi: Souq Waqif’s first ever businesswoman

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Shams Al-Qassabi made history for being the first bold woman to kickstart a business in Souq Waqif, a bustling market at the heart of the Qatari capital.

Meet Shams Al-Qassabi, the mother of five who established her name in Qatar’s history as the first woman to run a business in the male-dominated Souq Waqif. 

Shay Al-Shmous, her famed restaurant and spice store, once held a mere twelve chairs. Now it boast more than 250 chairs and is often filled with hungry customers. Pictures of political, artistic, and sports figures who visited the restaurant adorn its interior. Her ever-growing collection of awards and trophies rest with pride, stacked on shelves around a shop that can barely hold any more weight. 

Photo provided by Shams Al-Qassabi.

Shams’ kitchen is the birthplace of the most homey of aromas, the kind of fragrances that speak directly to many Qataris’ childhoods, and immerse many expats in the flavours of the Qatari kitchen. The chef is her own miracle. She saw a brilliance in Qatari food, and added her own twist to it.

“It’s my way of preserving Qatari culture and traditions,” she told Doha News.

Al-Qassabi won several awards, both locally and internationally, including the title of the best entrepreneurial project in Qatar. But while awards have been following her throughout her career, what she considers to be her greatest achievement is feeding the Father Amir Hamad Al Thani. 

Her humilty is reflected in her food and the way she treats her guests and employees. Every morning, Al-Qassabi takes the bus with her employees to the Souq, and is often heard communicating with them in Hindi.

“When I see them [her guests] my soul returns, they give me energy. They come into the kitchen and kiss my head, calling me “mother Shmous”,” Al-Qassabi said. In the restaurant, Al-Qassabi is constantly seen walking around, serving her guests herself and even asking for their opinion of the food.

Her daughters work with her and when she’s off sick, her absence is felt. Customers regularly rush into the kitchen to ask “where’s our mum Shmous”.

It’s a unique owner-customer relationship, especially in a city where people are not used to knowing a restaurant owner’s name, let alone call the restaurant owner their “mother”.   

“This is what success is. Success is not about the fancy interior or the placement of the mayonnaise and ketchup. It’s about the soul in the food,” said Al-Qassabi. 

Photo provided by Shams Al-Qassabi.

Her love for the kitchen started at a young age, when she’d help her mother and grandmother cook. Her professional journey started in 2001, when she joined the first Modern Family Exhibition in Qatar. She needed starting capital to participate in the exhibition, so she used what she already had at home to earn money.

“I had a lemon tree at home, so I made some pickles and started selling to my neighbours,” said Al-Qassabi. A main principle that Al-Qassabi built her business on was not being in debt, “my dad always told me that a successful trader starts from zero”.

Eventually she made 500 riyals, just enough to get her started in the exhibition and says she was inspired by memories of her grandmother making spices and pickles at home.

“I didn’t know recipes or portions, so I had to make my own,” Al-Qassabi said. She remembers preparing the spices in the morning and grinding them after putting her kids to sleep using her broken coffee grinder.

When the 10-day exhibition ended, Al-Qassabi turned her 500 riyals into 32,000 riyals. From then on, the turnout became greater and the demand increased significantly. 

In 2004, Souq Waqif was still in the process of being constructed but the management encouraged her to open her own spice store.

“I was hesitant to work between men, especially considering that I was the only woman,” said Al-Qassabi. She comes from a conservative family, and could not comprehend how she, a woman, could stand around all these men to sell her products.

However, there is a first for everything. Thats why she chose to take the first step in creating change and took it on herself to fight the outdated social stigmas that tie Qatari women down. In a country whose customs and traditions did not favour women working alongside men, Al-Qassabi initially struggled in persuading her family to accept her work in the Souq.

However, seeing her store in newspapers after just one day of opening felt like a dream to her. “Suddenly seeing my face in newspapers, reality finally hit, I was really the first Qatari woman in the Souq and it all felt worth it,” Al-Qassabi told Doha News.

Picture of an old newspaper featuring Al-Qassabi.

Despite not finishing her education beyond grade 5, her love for people and the kitchen has turned her into one of the Gulf region’s leading entrepreneurs. “Before the blockade, Emirati Sheikhs would send pick-up trucks and buy 15,000-20,000 riyals’ worth of spices,” said Al-Qassabi.

Most importantly? She does not shy away from owning her success. “I have some certificates higher than those who have a Master’s degree”.

The 12 types of spices and pickles she started off have now turned into 400 local varieties. However, her journey does not end here as she strives to better herself and her food everyday.

“I am living proof that work and success do not contradict the nature of women and their role in society,” said Al-Qassabi.


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