x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Blue Souq fights progress and economy

Merchants at Sharjah's Blue Souq are finding every day is a struggle as fewer tourists visit the historic establishment, and those who come, spend less.

Lamps, carpets and crafts are common items for sale in the Blue Souq.
Lamps, carpets and crafts are common items for sale in the Blue Souq.

The Central Market starts coming to life at about 9.30am with a plate of paratha and keema (mince) curry at Al Baraiem Cafeteria. It’s not to everyone’s taste.

“They use too much chili powder,” said Farooq Dar, 38, a Kashmiri textile merchant who works at Al Hatim Novelties. “It’s bad for the stomach but we have no family here, so what can we do?”

It is telling that the cook, Yahyeh, prefers a breakfast of two eggs, sunny side up. A cup of hastily downed sugary tea will be the first of many, most of them served as a goodwill gesture before serious and occasionally bitter negotiations begin at Sharjah’s famous Blue Souq.

His tea finished, Mr Dar scurried to his shop past merchants who open their shutters to haggle with tourists over silver toe rings, peacock plumes and strings of turquoise and pearls.

In his cubbyhole of a shop, Mr Dar presents customers with shawls embroidered with six months’ worth of needlework, theirs for Dh1,000.

Preferences and prices vary according to nationality. Beaded velvet tissue boxes are popular with all, but many customers have vanished since the recession, particularly tourists and expatriates.

“Before we had too much business at Christmas, now not so much,” said Mr Dar. “We don’t know where the European customers are.”

The dwindling number of European customers has been offset by more buyers from Asia and Russia in recent years as they select replicas of everything from pashmina shawls to Khanjar swords.

“In Sharjah now they are mostly selling Chinese items,” said Mr Mahesh, 48, the Indian manager of Al Dalal Trading, as he took stock of his antiques and Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. “Before tourists were rich. They bought handmade items. Now tourists are poor. Before they never asked the price. Every day we have too many fights.”

Vinod Shivani, Mr Mahesh’s assistant, quickly corrects him.

“Not fighting. Arguments,” said the 28-year-old from Kolkata. “These we have every day.”

Merchants blame malls for luring tourists away. Profits have dropped by more than two-thirds since the recession while rents have held steady for four years.

Still, there are many trinkets you won’t find at an typical mall and the souq’s merchandise is often a starting point for history lessons and old legends.

In an Afghanistan curio shop a bearded figurine sits on a shelf beneath a ceramic tree, surrounded by lapis lazuli stamps and hooked rabab guitars. He is a depiction of a 13th century funny man from Turkey whose wisdom is related across Asia and Europe.

“This Mullah Nasreddin,” explained Abdul Basir, 19, the owner’s son. “This is a joking man. He is like Mr Bean.”

Shops named for other legendary figures such as Sheba and Sinbad are crammed with wooden images of the Belgian cartoon adventurer Tintin and what are advertised as “antique” coffee pots. Carpet shop merchants will fill you with tea and politics as they pile Afghani kilims and heavy wool Pakistani bukhara rugs at your feet.

Products change with politics. A Yemeni-run store has autographed photos of navy warships. One snapshot shows three men in fatigues on an air strip, balancing on what appears to be a flying carpet.

"This one is from the Iraq War, the first one, and this one is from the Afghanistan war, the Taliban war,” said Mohammed Sowkathoosain, a 30-year-old from Bangladesh, going through each photo. On the opposite wall is another battle scene of Persian hunters woven in silk into an Isfahan carpet on a deep blue background.

Then there is the battle for customers. Merchants post sentries along the overhead walkway to watch for former clients. Once inside, customers are treated like family by men like Zahar Uddin, a sales executive at Al Mashi Carpet.

Mr Uddin produces camel bags and Iranian pouffes and, equally important, photographs of his children. This begins the inevitable discussion about how choosing a carpet is like choosing a wife.

Twenty years ago the souq was full of carpets from Afghanistan emblazoned with Soviet tanks. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, many of the souq’s Persian rugs were smuggled here by dhow. Captains would dump them into the sea if they were in danger of capture. With the recent embargo, traders are wary once again, while displaying a certain amount of confidence at the same time.

“We have ways,” one said.