x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Market forces

The traditional trading space in Arab cities, the bustling souq, appears to be becoming scarce in the modern UAE.

The souq in Bur Dubai may initially feel like the real thing, but a closer inspection reveals that all is not as it first seems.
The souq in Bur Dubai may initially feel like the real thing, but a closer inspection reveals that all is not as it first seems.

Gaya al Dhaheri remembers a time when the souq in Al Ain was the heart of the city. It was the early 1960s and she was just a child. Schools did not yet exist and her father, who owned a tailor's shop in the souq, knew how much she loved visiting the bustling marketplace. So he would allow her to tag along when he went to work and let her loose inside, where she would wander around for hours, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells, which, over 40 years later, she still remembers as clearly as if it were yesterday.

"I would go around everywhere, talking with everybody, asking the shopkeepers all about whatever it was that they were selling," she recalls. "I wanted all the details." The souq was the perfect place for a curious child. There was no space left empty inside; from the high cloth roof to the shop floors, every inch was filled with an array of goods. And in the absence of any real formal education, al Dhaheri says that the souq was her textbook. More than just a place to buy and sell things, the souq represented the pulse of the city. In addition to its economic function, it was a meeting place. Poetry readings and storytelling took place. Before there were telephones, any town announcement - of a wedding, for example - would be made at the souq, simply because that's where everyone would be. There, business deals were discussed and made, family and farming updates were traded, advice and ideas were exchanged.

For al Dhaheri, the souq was a source of endless excitement and information. "Because my father was the tailor, everybody knew him. And everyone was so nice to me," she remembers fondly. Now, she says, the souqs are mainly run by Indian store owners, adding that you won't find Emiratis running shops any more. That, al Dhaheri says, is regrettable."It wasn't just important for me. The souq was a huge part of everyone's life, it was a huge part of our culture. Now, it's completely different."

Abdel Rahman Makhlouf also remembers the souq's heyday. Arriving in Abu Dhabi in 1968, Makhlouf was the city's first urban planner. Flown in at the request of Sheikh Zayed, it was Makhlouf's job to turn Abu Dhabi into a modern capital city, and the redesign of the souq was among his first assignments. Opening officially in 1970, the souq had to encapsulate the Sheikh's vision, which was for the shops to become spaces for Emiratis to develop creativity, sources of income and contribute to a burgeoning commercial economy. And while it became all those things, it also quickly emerged as much more.

"The souq, you could walk through it, there's shops on both sides, a cover on top," he says, closing his eyes and picturing it in his mind. "You could see it, yes. But you could feel it too." Historically, Arab cities began when people living in small agricultural settlements began producing more than they and their families alone could consume, Makhlouf asserts. "They would produce something - say, plants, vegetables, whatever they needed. But they developed their methods and they began producing more than they needed. They decided the extras could be traded with other people who had different things," he said. "They agreed to have a central location for the exchange, and they called it the souq. In many places, those central locations, the souq, became the towns."

While those cities have developed, expanded and modernised since their humble agricultural beginnings, Makhlouf explains that for the most part, they still have their souqs. Cairo has Khan el Khalili, Damascus has the Souq el Hamidiyeh (originally built in 1780), Tel Aviv has the Carmel souq - still used by many residents as a market for daily goods - Istanbul has its Grand Bazaar, Marakesh, Baghdad, Muscat, these cities all have a traditional souq, so why, Makhlouf wants to know, doesn't Abu Dhabi?

"It's so important to keep the old souqs," he says, adding that even if they are renovated, even if their merchandise and physical structures are updated, they serve an important enough role to make them worth retaining. Al Dhaheri's concerns with the disappearing souqs are more practical than anything. Never mind its function as a place to shop, the souq can still perform a vital function in contemporary society.

"My father, now he sits in his house and watches TV. Now, we just go to our friends' houses, we don't meet somewhere else. Young people, they go to the mall. But the mall feels different," she says. Dr Fatma al Sayegh, professor of UAE and Gulf history at the UAE University in Al Ain, says that calls to hold on to the past can sometimes miss the point. "Abu Dhabi does not have a merchant community. It never did. If you don't have a merchant community, there's no need for a souq," she states, matter of factly. "Dubai and Sharjah, they do have merchant communities. They still have their souqs."

Al Sayegh explains that she is not diminishing the importance of maintaining culture and tradition, but that when it comes to Abu Dhabi, souqs are, quite frankly, not a significant part of the history. Abu Dhabi is a different place than it was 30 years ago, Makhlouf admits, but he sees no reason why the souq can't evolve along with the rest of the urban landscape. "It's a matter of scale. There are three levels in any city: small scale, the neighbourhood, where you need services within walking distance; medium scale, which means a larger service area, still at the community level, though; and large scale - the large size of cities is something modern."

Makhlouf uses the examples of Dubai and Sharjah as cities with traditional-feeling souqs that coexist with malls. A large building made up of two long rectangular-shaped sections with a blue tiled exterior, Sharjah's Central Souq, known more commonly as the Blue Souq, is among the best used commercial centres in the emirate. With two floors and hundreds of shops, everything from Adidas track suits to carpets to spices and electronics can be purchased here. The place may not be as chaotic and ramshackle as a stereotypical Arab souq, but the narrow corridors and shops with merchandise spilling out of their doors make it feel like the real thing.

"I love it. You get tourists here, but it's more practical than just being a tourist site. People do their day-to-day shopping here," explains Helen Schrader, who lived in Sharjah for years before moving to Dubai. Though she no longer lives in the same city, she still shops at the Blue Souq regularly. "You can explore, you find the most amazing things - gold, fabrics, carpets - and you can get a deal on everything. There's nothing comparable in Dubai. And this is not a mall. It's a souq and it's the real thing. I much prefer it."

The word mall comes from America, as Makhlouf insists: "There is nothing Arab about it. We can still use the idea of the souq as a central service area, but it has to be on a different scale. The question now is how to do it." On a sweaty Thursday night in Bur Dubai, the souq is packed. The wooden beams crossing over above the walkways, the coral stones of which the walls are made and the wood-framed entrances to shops make it feel authentic. The scent of incense also hangs in the air, just like al Dhaheri described. The only thing that gives the place away is the merchandise - and the customers.

"My name is Bunti Vedpraash. I am from Jaipur and this is my shop," says a proud and slender man, standing in the doorway of his shop, out of which all sorts of stuff spills onto the pavement. After five minutes of trying to hustle, Vedpraash is finally ready to answer some questions. "No, no. No Emirati customers here. Tourists only - Europeans." Located in the Bastakiya area, along with all the museums and heritage architecture, the souq attracts customers, Vedpraash explains, because "they think it's the real Arab experience".

But is it? "Um, no," he replies. "Everything you see here - from India." Roada al Falasi, 19, was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. Sometimes, she says, she shops at the souq in Al Ain, where she lives now. But only for traditional items like khandouras. She then adds that this is a relatively rare occurrence, swiftly moving on to explain her reasons. "I would never work in a souq. There's no education needed for that," she says. "The souq used to be important, but that was before air conditioning. Now that we have that, why would we say no?"

As a result, she and her friends meet up in other, cooler places than the souq. Like the mall. It isn't a big deal though, she says. The country is changing and that isn't going to stop any time soon. "We can live a modern life but keep our roots," she explains. "We can adjust our traditions. It's not a big deal. It's OK." jhume@thenational.ae