x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Memories and history for sale at Sharjah antiques market

One person's junk is another's treasure. Nowhere is this truer than Souq Al Masqoof, one of the oldest in Sharjah, where long forgotten objects find new life.

Traditional coffee pots, known as dallahs, and jewellery are some of the many antiques for sale at the souq’s stores. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Traditional coffee pots, known as dallahs, and jewellery are some of the many antiques for sale at the souq’s stores. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The items themselves are only part of the bargain. At Souq Al Masqoof, an antiques market in Sharjah, the true value in old objects such as outdated currency, war medals, military radios and decades-old cameras is the stories that come with them, Rym Ghazal reports


One person's junk is another's treasure. Nowhere is this truer than Souq Al Masqoof, one of the oldest in Sharjah, where long forgotten objects find new life.

Here in the heart of the city's heritage area, you can go home with a heavy old dial-up phone complete with faded Arabic numbers. There are stuffed crocodiles and decommissioned army equipment, from old radar boxes to face masks.

Here, old tyrants still glare out balefully from bank notes whose only value is historical. Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein rub shoulders in their protective plastic sheaths.

Prices on the junk refined as antiques range from a few dirhams to several thousand, all subject to bargaining, of course. A one Libyan dinar note emblazoned with the face of the late Col Qaddafi, complete with his trademark scarf, will cost about Dh50, or about 17 times the current exchange rate.

"People want something with images of figures they recognise or have heard about," says Mohammed Khalifa Al Saidi, the owner of Al Saidi antiques, where he spends most of his day sitting with retired Emirati friends sipping coffee and reflecting on the past.

"The electronics and machine antiques are not doing well. People want new things today. Fast and light," he says, pointing to decades worth of stories captured by rows of cameras, including a Polaroid from the 1980s, a Bolex H16 motion-picture camera from the 1960s, and several chunky cameras from the 1970s, including almost forgotten brands such as Praktica from the old communist East Germany and a Japanese Petri.

But buyer beware, some work and some do not. Prices range from Dh200 to Dh300 for the smaller cameras, to the precision Swiss-made Bolex selling for Dh5,000.

Other shelves hold 1950s toy cars made of tin and steel and pressing irons used by previous generations, including some heated by a chunk of burning coal placed inside. Old radios tuned by dials marked with long-gone stations, stamps and even bullets - presumably blanks - are all up for grabs at Mr Al Saidi's shop.

"Old Emirati money is popular, like this Dh5 coin, minted in 1981, sells for Dh80," says Mr Al Saidi, who is now in his sixties.

Tourists search for typical Emirati heritage objects such as dallah coffee pots, burqas and anything wearing in traditional dress. Sometimes that can be a doll, but often it is the shop owner himself.

"They always want to take our photos. We have been photographed by the Russians, Chinese, Japanese and Americans," Mr Al Saidi says.

One of the most common questions asked by customers is: "What is the oldest object?" In answer, he always points to his friend Ismael Mubarak, who is in his late seventies.

"That is an authentic Emirati fossil," he says with a laugh. Ismael, a merchant, waves him off as he says: "We are all fossils. Most of the young Emiratis don't even understand our dialects any more."

As for Mohammed Nassir Al Zaroni, who is 80 and known throughout the souq as "the antiques man", he can provide rare but slightly controversial items from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, including medals and posters.

But not everything is for sale. Watches with Saddam Hussein printed on the face and given as presents by the late president to Iraqis he favoured are for display only.

"I collected what I liked, not necessarily thinking if it will sell or not," says Mr Al Zaroni, who owns the family-run Gulf Antiques shops, with three branches in the souq.

Mr Al Zaroni started collecting while working as a cleaning boy at the age of 15 at the British military base in Sharjah.

Old army radios and tools, old guns and artillery left behind soon made it to the back storage room of his father's grocery store. Slowly, it grew to include rare items sold to him by Bedouin and other objects he found forgotten in souqs around the region.

One of his favourite collections is of vehicle licence plates, with the history of Sharjah recaptured by a row of plates on display.

The collection begins with the first plates from the 1950s, carrying the old Sharjah flag of a red rectangle surrounded by white and single and two-digit numbers, issued mainly for government officials and members of the Royal Family.

Then came the 1960s, with Sharjah printed on the plates with both Arabic and English numbers, followed by the 1970s, when the letters UAE were introduced to the plates, and numbers got longer as the population grew.

"I was given the number 35 back in the 1960s when I bought my first second-hand Land Rover, and in the 1970s I was given 688, and then it got harder and harder to get such small numbers for free," he says.

He is coy about the price of these plates, insisting that he decides if the customer is worthy enough of such historic items.

"It is not about if the price is right, but wh the person buying understands and appreciates the treasure he or she is holding in their hands," Mr Al Zaroni says.

Among the few items still in demand are Islamic antiques, some more than a thousand years old, with Arabian Gulf citizens keeping the market alive.

"The Emiratis like to buy the Islamic swords, the khanjar, and rifles," says Bader Amir at Al Mutasim store for rare antiques and Islamic artefacts.

Saudi nationals, he notes, have a great interest in domestic-related Islamic items, such as dallah, stands for burning incense and cooking pots.

"Kuwaiti customers have asked for old manuscripts and decorative items, and the Qataris I have dealt with asked for figurines and unique objects, like a gunpowder sack or case, measuring tools, Aladdin-like oil lamps and so on," he says.

The prices depend on the condition of the object.

Meanwhile, plates and tea sets with images of historic figures continue to be a hit with the other Arabs. They feature royalty such as Queen Alia of Jordan (1948-1977), King Farouq of Egypt (1936-1965) and King Ghazi of Iraq (1912-1939). Prices range from Dh500 for a cup to Dh1,000 for a plate.

"There are so many fakes out there. They have killed the antiques market," says Mr Amir, who is originally from Iraq.

"It is a shame, because there is nothing like holding a piece of history and passing it along down the generations as a family heirloom," he says.

"Each object saves a bit of its former owner's touch and has a great story to tell."