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The Souk

Posted by Range Officer Rhonda on January 11, 2010

From time to time, I post little teaser chapters from my memoirs [Memoirs of a Jeddah Brat, self-published 2007] that are, thus far, an on-going and updated project. Here, in the unedited version, is the chapter summary for the Souk.

 Some of our most pleasant memories of Jeddah were our visits to the Souk. Good or bad, it was an experience that delighted us every time. The Souk Al-Alawi is one of the better known Souk’s of the world. It extends from the Old city of Jeddah and rather than building over the old city as many cities have done, instead, the Saudi’s have built out and around the old city. Nowhere else on earth can you find such a vast array of beauty and desolation.

When you first venture into the Souk, you would think you had entered a bomb-scarred city that was in an ever-present fall to decay. The streets were prone to flooding during the rare rainstorms and filth trickled in the streets in little puddles and rivulets consisting of what you probably don’t want to even think on. There is no visible drainage and you have to step lively and pay sharp attention where you place your feet and what streets you visit.

 One cannot begin to describe the weird and wonderful delights of the Souk. All of your senses were assailed by the differences. The smells, the sounds, the tastes, the noise – all of it can overwhelm your senses. Having probably been there many times yourselves, if you are a Saudi kid, you know what I mean. If you have never traveled to a country and visited a Souk, then here is a very inadequate comparison. Think of a farmer’s market that never quits (and the smell of manure), combine it with a garage sale the size of a football stadium, add in a Mexican market place and toss in a couple of strip malls like what you may find around a tattoo parlor. Finally, add in a throng of dark, swarthy men with the countenance of pirates and the noise of them arguing over something. These men are usually garbed in loose flowing, ankle length shirts known as a thawb with a ghutra held in place by a coil about their heads. Now you just have a bare glimmer of what it was like. If there were women about, it was seldom other than Americans or Europeans. Most women were covered head to toe so as not to show any skin, even the foreign women. The Saudi women are usually covered with a black cloak and veil (abaya) when they leave the house, but foreign women usually can make do with a long dress and especially must wear a scarf covering their hair. Children were well tolerated and even blessed by the Arabs. 

As an aside, as a teen I was once whipped by the religious police with a whip similar to a cat-o-nine-tails, simply because my long granny dress still showed a little too much ankle. I quickly learned to cover myself fully before venturing out into the streets and markets. And MANY times I was pinched hard enough to bruise when in a crowd; heaven only knows if this was an attack or warning. I always thought it was dirty old men getting a cheap thrill, but it could also have been a warning from the more religious group to be more modest as is the station of the woman in that country.

 I liked most about the Souk the ability to bargain for what you were buying. It was fun to shop, no matter what you were looking for. Never pay the price they first ask for, but go through a series of bargaining ploys before you cough up your hard-earned riyals! It was like a game every time you played with masters in every shop. And they had everything. Mostly we stayed in the ‘American’ part of the Souk where each street was laid out with a particular type of goods. You could watch the brass workers making coffeepots, rug and tapestry makers displaying their current work in progress out front while behind them were piles and rolls of rugs of every size and shape, some stacks towering above your head. The woodworks area had finely detailed delicate tables with leaf and scroll works inlaid with ivory or intricately carved window coverings similar to storm shutters in function only but far surpassing them in ornamentation and decoration. Other fine art in the wood area included the painted trunks of which the area was famous for. The were streets of jewelry makers and sellers where you buy raw gems, coins of any nation, hand worked gold bracelets, watches of every make and model and other fine works of jewelry. The price of gold was then much cheaper than in America and often of a much better quality. 22karat and 24 karat gold were predominant and much prized by girls and women of all races. Especially the bracelets. In walking down the spice aisles, you could find incense and spices from around the world. Sandalwood and cloves were always burning and the smell grew on you so that if you were like me, you became addicted to the pleasant aromas. In addition to the many fine and custom perfumes were vials, jars and bottles of hand worked glass. Some of this even would be edged in gold and delicate enough to grace any vanity table. You could find brass tables that shone like gold and were carved or painted with such intricate detail, it would take your breath away. Ornamental wrought iron tables were made on site and in addition to the usual kitsch and junk you could find finely carved wood animals, vases and other artwork. Camels and elephants predominated here, and what home didn’t have a brass or wooden camel in it?  And of course, for some strange reason, there was always a little plastic Santa Claus hanging around somewhere, year round.

 When you needed a breather from shopping, you could sit outside at one of the many coffee bars (where they usually served tea – shay – and cokes instead of coffee) and sample the food of the area. My favorite, and a must during any visit of the Souk, were the Shwarma sandwiches with Fuul (fava beans, garlic & spice). Also sitting nearby, you could usually find some men sitting on the ground sipping at their hubbly bubbly pipes smoking with tobacco, hashish or other aromatic herbs. Going to one of the coffee bars is a good idea if you hear the callers from the minarets sound the call to prayer since you won’t be able to do anything during prayer time. If you happened to be in the Souk during one of the five daily calls to prayer, you would see the shops close up and men lay down their small prayer rugs, face towards Mecca and pray. Women would virtually disappear. The Islam religion tolerates the presence of Christians fairly well since in the Islamic religion, Jesus is considered a Prophet of Allah and Christians are fellow ‘People of the Book’ as dictated by Allah in the Qur’an. But while they tolerate the Christians, they also expect the Christians and other foreigners to ascribe to their social norms and not violate their modest beliefs and practices.

 In retrospect, I often romanticized my visions of the Souk, but harsh reality soaked in during later years as I realized the many beggars who would clutch at your sleeves asking for baksheesh were women who would stick their babies with pins or pinch them to make them cry to play on your sympathies, or street gangs of poor children looking for a few gersch to supplement their income derived from pick pocketing. The more enterprising youths became basket boys and for a mere pittance would follow you around faithfully (and usually honestly) carrying your purchases until you were ready to leave. Often when you arrived at the Souk, there would be a line of basket boys waiting and word would pass among them until one of your regular boys would suddenly appear and ‘take charge’ of your shopping. These basket boys would chase off others vying for your business, recommend good shops to go to for your various quests, and often ward off the beggars for you. Having a basket boy always enhanced the experience of shopping in the open markets.


2 Responses to “The Souk”

  1. We lived in Bahrain for a while, when we were first married, and I adored exploring the souk. It always made me feel like I was on a treasure hunt.

    • Range Officer Rhonda said

      Yes, that’s exactly it Becky – a treasure hunt! Besides going to the Red Sea, my most pleasant memories are of the Souks.

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