Bits & Bytes

The Bountiful Souk of Arabia

By Jamilah Samian

Photo courtesy of Ehsan Khakbaz

[This article was written and published when the author was living in Muscat, Oman with her family.]

Men clad in white, flowing dishdashas sit on long benches or squat on the paved sidewalk, seemingly oblivious to passers-by. They bask in the mild breeze, which wafts down the long, sweeping Mutrah corniche. The setting sun glimmers on the horizon, sending rays of light in magenta, orange and turquoise that reflect over undulating, soft ripples which caress the shallow sands.

Several metres beyond the gentle waves stands an imposing concrete gateway bereft of ostentation. There is little to suggest the architectural treasures that lie ahead. Yet, one step aside is sufficient to tell that this is no ordinary shopping bazaar.

Welcome to the Mutrah souk, a traditional Omani market and reputedly one of the best of its kind in Arabia.

It is Mutrah’s main alley that has earned the souk its fame. Simple geometric patterns in bright hues of red, yellow, blue and black weave their way overhead, forming a canopy which exudes an aura of majestic grandeur upon the mundane pursuits below. Ornately carved lights hang delicately from the ceiling. Surely, this is the most exquisite feature of the souk.

The sweet aroma of frankincense welcomes every newcomer into the souk. Here, as in other parts of Oman, business gains greater momentum as dusk starts to fall. Soaring summer temperatures, coupled with high humidity, discourage locals and foreigners from roaming beyond the comforts of their abode during the daytime. It is simply cooler to shop at night.

The atmosphere resounds with light-hearted banter. An air of warm dignity abounds as each trader endeavours to coax customers into their shop. Further down the alley, a solitary lady shrouded in black sits patiently, peddling her wares of perfumes and traditional concoctions. She is a picture of cool composure, pitting her entrepreneurial skills against the more established outlets. Nearby, an energetic youth performs the onerous task of pulling a sturdy cart, skilfully dodging oncoming traffic.

The Mutrah souk, which nestles about three kilometres northwest of Muscat, offers an amazing array of goods, both modern and antique. This, arguably, is the most awesome feature of the establishment. Household wares stand for the picking; personal items are ready to adorn you from head to foot. Kettles from by-gone decades parade next to modern ones.

A few of the outlets also offer an excellent choice of Omani silverware that includes a wide range of personal jewellery. Some of these dangle on the walls along with the famed Khanjar (a curved dagger), framed to perfection. Polished brass gleams proudly amongst ornately carved regalia. Vintage wooden chests, mellowed to an alluring deep brown shade, beckon antique enthusiasts.

Many of the traders are Indians, which reflects the close Indo-Omani relationship in this region. Most of them are fluent in English and Arabic, while some are even conversant in Swahili, a widely spoken African tongue.

A labyrinth of narrow alleys fork from the souk’s main passage. The shops in these alleys are smaller, but some of their offerings are fascinating. There are freshly ground spices with aromas to invigorate and tempt the palate of any would-be cook who happens by. Further on, some huge cauldrons – gigantic pots and pans that could hold a feast for thousands! Parts of the passages of the older sections are not paved but are extremely well-trodden and surprisingly clean. There is no telltale sign of the recent fire that partly razed the souk.

Down the main alley, an air-conditioned coffee-shop offers some respite against the humid evening heat, whipping up freshly-squeezed, thirst-quenching fruit juices along with the ever popular shawarma, the local version of the fast-food burger. Those with a craving for sugar will find a treat in helwa, a traditional finger-licking sweet for Eid and other celebrations.

Despite the abundance of modern shopping complexes in Muscat, there has yet to be an establishment that challenges the special charm of the Mutrah souk. Is it simply the availability of a wide range of merchandise at reasonable prices that keeps the old and young flocking back to its premises, or the richness of the ambience that draws you to explore its every shop and alleyway?

Whatever the reason, the Mutrah souk has successfully sailed into the current millenium as a proud beacon ofOman’s fine heritage.

Published in Special Feature, Destinations (Shell global family magazine) 2001

About Jamilah Samian

Jamilah has written 540 articles.

Jamilah Samian is an author and speaker.

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