Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wandering in a Souk

"Souk" is simply the Arabic word for “market”.  The spelling is phonetic, so it can be souk or suq or suk.

 Tijuana was my first experience walking around in a crowded, colorful and noisy foreign market. Only ten and on vacation, I delighted in the vibrant colors and vivid life swirling around the many stalls.
 Twenty years later I found myself in the souk in downtown Amman; then, in rapid succession, Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Bahrain, Istanbul,  Sudan (Omdurman),Limassol,  Muscat and Nizwa.   I still can’t imagine anything I would rather do more than stroll through the maze of shops in a covered market in the Middle East.

Purchasing was never the goal, though hunting was the game.  And in true confessions, there was hardly a souk adventure that didn’t result in some kind of purchase, even if only rose scented oil.  My personal hunt was always for antique stone or silver beads, and amber.   I found my Circassian  belt (see blog 12/15/10) in the deep recesses of the Junk Souk in Amman.  The best souks for the silver jewelry I sought were in Nizwa and Muscat (Oman).   Damascus was said to be tops for gold and carpets.  (Maybe.  My experience is that nothing beats a New England auction for oriental carpets.)   The markets in Peru are wonderful places to browse for handicrafts.  Colorful sweaters, silver vases, and Andean candles are eye candy for the Sunday ambler.

If it is not about buying, then what is it about?  The market experience stimulates all five senses.  As you enter you smell the coffee and the spices from the spice souk.  Then you are bombarded by sound.  People are everywhere and they call out to you:  “Madam, madam, come into my shop”.  “Madam, madam, I have something for you”. “Madam madam, do you like jewelry?”  It’s probably something to get used to, but it is part of the market game.  Your vision is jammed full of colors and crafts, and people.  And there are always wonderful barbequed meats, and tapas, and sweets, as well as tea with the carpet seller.   Textiles are there for the touching:  silks in Kashmir and Damascus, leather in Istanbul, alpaca wool Peru.

The markets I have visited all over the world are exciting to me because for all their noise and excitement they are usually family operated fine art or craft businesses.  Once you are in a stall--say for a carpet-- the vendor is energized, running around trying to find what it is he thinks you want.  If you mention something he doesn’t have, a little boy/son/nephew/brother runs to another shop, to said vendor’s brother/uncle/ cousin, to bring it in.  The asking price is usually twice the selling price.  And it is your job to whittle it down.  Tea and biscuits while you haggle, are of course, included.

The closest thing to a Developing World market or souk experience in the United States is a regional craft fair.  They’re nice.  But I yearn for the noise, the color, the intrigue, dark corridors, and pungent smells of cardamom spiced coffee in a Middle Eastern souk.

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