Amateur astronomer Amro Mahmoud is back at the iconic Souq Waqif market in Doha, Qatar, after spending seven months away from his telescope during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It was a very difficult seven months, with no work and a lockdown,” said Mahmoud, who made his living showing people the stars before the market was shut down due to COVID-19. “I’m glad we managed to open. The sky is clear.”
The souq, a 100-year-old marketplace, is located at the centre of Doha. It has dozens of stores, traditional restaurants, coffee shops and boutique hotels. It’s usually teeming with residents and tourists.
On good days prior to the 2017 blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt the market could see around 20,000 to 30,000 visitors, according to reports by local media.
However, with the pandemic this year, it was different. At one point, Qatar had one of the highest infection rates in the world. The government imposed strict rules, including shutting down the market, and began extensive testing.
At its peak, Qatar saw 2,000 daily COVID-19 cases. But, after strict measures, the country now only has 148 new infections reported on average every day.
Qatar started lifting restrictions under a four-phase plan. The souq was allowed to open on July 1. The market was permitted to operate at 50 per cent capacity, with some specific regulations from the Ministry of Public Health.
That was a relief to Mahmoud.
“I’m happy to be back. I’ve seen new people, old people, I have my job. I came back to life,” he said.
Fascinated by astronomy
Mahmoud first set up at the bustling Souq Waqif market five years ago. He’s been fascinated by astronomy since he was growing up in Egypt.
Ever since then, he’s welcomed locals and tourists to use his blue Meade LX10 telescope. He chose the market due to its popularity among the local and ex-pat population. While it is not impossible to access a telescope in Qatar, he was one of the first people to make the activity accessible and popular by establishing his business at the famous venue.
“This is a light telescope from the U.S.,” he said, “I have around 20 different lenses to go with it. I keep changing them because they wear out and you need to replace.”
He charges the equivalent of $1.79 Cdn (5QR) per visit and makes about $36 Cdn (100 QR) on average days. On a good day, he can make up to $358 Cdn (1,000QR). During festivities, he can make up to $717 Cdn (2,000QR).
Before the coronavirus, he also offered visits to schools and stargazing trips to the desert. But things drastically changed when the pandemic hit.
“There was a time when I requested loans from my friends to make ends meet,” Mahmoud said.
‘A new experience’
Now back in business, he often sees more than 50 people on weekend days who seem to appreciate the chance to look up.
“This is a very interesting project, it … triggers the curiosity of the youngest and oldest alike,” said Marcus Biacius, a Brazilian visitor.
Children also enjoy the experience.
“I saw Saturn and it was amazing,” six-year-old Penelope said. “I have only seen planets in my book, it’s the first time I see [them] with my eyes.”
That opportunity to bring his passion to others is what fuels Mahmoud.
“I have passion for this, and I really enjoy seeing people’s reaction, especially first comers, and kids,” said Mahmoud. “After they come and see, I know a new chapter starts after that. I’m very aware of the impact my job has on people.”