In Qatar, one restaurant lets poor eat for free

A restaurant named Zaiqa is doing something unique in Doha.

Cooks and waiters pose at the Zaiqa restaurant in southern suburbs of Doha on March 31. AFP Photo
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DOHA // In a corner of Qatar’s capital, a sign outside a restaurant popular with labourers reads: “If you are hungry and have no money, eat for free!!!”

The 16-seat eaterie in Doha’s Industrial Area of small-scale workshops, factories and low-cost accommodation has decided to offer free food to customers who cannot afford to pay.

The Indian brothers who own Zaiqa restaurant decided to put up the small makeshift sign about three weeks ago.

“When I saw the board I had tears in my eyes,” said one of the owners, Shadab Khan, 47, who is originally from New Delhi, but has lived in Qatar for 13 years.

The need for free food in Qatar is particularly acute among foreign labourers.

Shadab, who is a filmmaker as well as a restaurant owner, said those asking for food were mostly construction workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

He said the idea to offer free food came from his younger brother, Nishab.

“We realise a lot of people out here do not get paid on time and do not have money, not even money to eat,” said Shadab.

“So there were people who would come here and just buy a packet of bread. “And they would eat the bread with water.

“We realised those people don’t have money for anything else, so we would try to offer them food.” But it was not easy, he said. Many workers refused to take something for nothing, out of self-respect.

As a result, in the three weeks since the free food project started, “the number of people coming here to get free food is like two or three people a day at the most”, he said.

As if to emphasise Shadab’s point, two workers entered the restaurant but left in case their complimentary lunch should become public knowledge.

There are between 700,000 and a million migrant workers in Qatar, among a population of 2.3 million.

Rights groups have criticised companies in Qatar for not paying workers on time or, in some cases, at all.

The Qatari government, under international pressure to introduce salary reform in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, pledged this year to force companies to pay salaries through direct bank transfers.

“Many labourers earn between 800 and 1,000 riyals per month,” said Nepalese mechanic Ghufran Ahmed, one of Zaiqa’s customers.

“They have to send money back to home. It’s expensive here so there are people who need free food,”

For those who opt to pay, a fish curry at Zaiqa costs six Qatari riyals (Dh6), an egg roast is three riyals and a dish of palak paneer (spinach and cheese curry) is 10 riyals.

For Zaiqa, which serves food 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is a black cloud on the horizon.

The restaurant’s future is threatened by a dispute over rent with the property owner and may have to close down.

Shadab and his brother have a different plan for their next restaurant.

“We are putting a refrigerator outside, so this refrigerator won’t have a lock. It will be facing the road and it will have packets of food with dates on them,” he said.

“So anybody who wants to take it doesn’t have to come inside.”

* Agence France-Presse