For the love of all things old, quirky and deliberately dusty
There couldn’t have been a better day to visit the ‘antique’ store Champs Elysee Palace on Al Mirqab Al Jadeed Street, than when the city was engulfed in a dust storm. Old, antique, dusty, timeworn collectibles greet me as I step into the store, and Doha seemed like an extension of what lay inside.
Owner-cum-curator Ali Darwishi likes it that way. “A little dust here and there gives it that antique feel,” he laughs. “If they are bright and shiny, nobody will buy them.”
Ali is originally from Iran. He was just two when his family moved to Qatar in 1964. But he speaks Hindi with a fluency that would put an Indian to shame. So here was a ‘Only in Qatar’ moment, where in an Arabic-speaking country, I was asked by a Farsi-speaking gentleman, to interview him in Hindi.
“I used to run a department store previously that had 40 employees mainly from India, Bangladesh and Nepal. I picked up the language easily,” he smiles.
The store that he mentions was in the Gold Souq but was burned to the ground due to an electrical fault. He might have lost a lot with the fire, but he soon realised he had a much bigger treasure at home – the heap of antique items that he had been collecting over the past 35 years.
Ali set up Champs Elysee Palace in 2005. “At first all these items were not on sale. I opened the shop just for visitors to come and see my collection. But soon a lot of people wanted to buy some of the items, so I started putting them on sale.” Long-term residents of the area would remember the shop as a former café-cum-antique store. A friend of Ali owned the café that occupied the ground floor, while Ali ran his antique store upstairs. But the café shut down due to poor business, and Ali decided to expand his shop.
On first sight his store may look like a dumping ground for old, discarded items. But it’s only when you walk through each aisle, and spot shelves full of things that are no longer in use you realise the charm of the store.
The store receives a lot of customers for old stamps, books, coins, photographs, maps and banknotes. Majority of his clientele are Qataris. Tourists who visit his store usually go for the cheaper items that they buy as souvenirs.
Now, not everyone who enters his shop would be excited with what they see. On first sight his store may look like a dumping ground for old, discarded items. But it’s only when you walk through each aisle, and spot shelves full of things that are no longer in use you realise the charm of the store. Empty glass bottles, old cameras, transistor radios, oxidised jewellery and medals, black and white photographs, dated typewriters, matchboxes, you begin to realise how valuable each of these might be for those who share his craze for vintage and faux-vintage items.
Pointing at a rack full of old kettles, he asks me, “Even if I gave these for free, would you take it?” I quietly nod my head. “But I have sold these to some customers for QR750-1000 per piece. I have a customer who has a room filled with such kettles.”
He goes on to another rack, filled with all sorts of toys –cars, dolls, planes, etc. “Some people might think this is trash. But I have an 85-year-old customer who regularly comes to my store only to play with these toys. He actually sits down on the floor, and just like a kid, starts playing with them. It’s his obsession.” The starting price for these toys is on an average QR1,500.
If you think those were expensive, wait till he comes to the banknotes. A set of six old Qatar-Dubai notes has a price tag of QR250,000!
Whenever I used to go to the old post office in the souq with my father, I would take a pair of scissors along. I would ask people to hand over their envelopes once opened and cut out the stamps from there.
One can never predict what value an item holds years later. Ali tells me of an incident that makes him cringe even today. “During my father’s time, the Qatar-Dubai coins were in use. I had around 2000 pieces left with me when they had introduced the new version. I approached many banks to get these coins exchanged, but they would tell me to not bother as it was worth QR20 only. With no option left, I threw it in the garbage. Today one such coin costs QR150. Had I not thrown them away, I would have got around three lakh riyals in return,” he says.
But one item that he would never think of throwing or selling is his personal collection of stamps. Ali developed an interest in stamp collection at the age of 12. “Whenever I used to go to the old post office in the souq with my father, I would take a pair of scissors along. I would ask people to hand over their envelopes once opened and cut out the stamps from there.”
Today Ali has over 20 million stamps from all around the world. His love for stamps keeps him awake even in the wee hours of the morning. For 10 years now, he sits down to arrange the stamps that he receives in bulk in the stamp book at home from 12am-5am every single day. “I go to bed only after that,” he says.
Location: Al Mirqab Al Jadeed Street, next to Thai Snacks restaurant, in Al Saad
Store timings: 9.30am-1pm & 4.30-10pm, Fridays – 4.30-10pm
Contact: +974- 44443233 (T), 55506391 (M)