x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Baghdad's Shorjah market remains Ramadan central after 700 years

Souq, which was established in the Abassid era, still shows signs of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Baghdad’s Shorjah market has survived wars and the centuries and is still popular after 700 years.
Baghdad’s Shorjah market has survived wars and the centuries and is still popular after 700 years.

BAGHDAD // A year after it reopened, following rampant violence, shoppers flocked to Baghdad's Shorjah market as they have for centuries to buy goods for Ramadan.Soaring prices and scorching heat along with the bloodshed that engulfed the capital in recent years, have hit at the tradition and, consequently, the family businesses that depend on it.

"Ramadan starts from here," said Abu Issam while gazing at cases of rice and spices in his shop.

"Shorjah was a haven for people from all Iraq, especially during Ramadan," said the 70-year-old, who has worked in Shorjah for five decades, as his son Mohammed tried to turn on a ceiling fan that dates back to 1934.

"But today, the market lives in a time of security challenges and high prices that are controlled by importers, who raise them at the beginning of Ramadan every year."

Evening iftar meals, when the fast is broken, are a time of special dishes and family gatherings, and for more than 700 years, since Shorjah was established in the Abassid era, Iraqi families have stocked up on goods there before the start of Ramadan.

The market is the oldest commercial hub in Baghdad and is located in the historic centre of the city, bustling with shoppers and merchants hawking their wares as donkeys and horses drag carts of produce along Shorjah's narrow, pothole-filled lanes.

All manner of goods are sold in sections around a dozen khans, or age-old resthouses that have been converted to shop fronts.

In deference to Baghdad's version, markets that have popped up in cities across Iraq have also taken the name Shorjah.

The activity in the capital's market marks a major departure from just a handful of years ago, when sectarian violence forced roads leading to the market and its main thoroughfare to be closed from 2007 until last summer, when they were reopened.

Following the 2003 US-led invasion, Shorjah was the site of heavy fighting between American and Iraqi forces, and then between US troops and Iraqi insurgents.

Shoulder-high concrete blast walls still line both sides of the market's main road, Al-Jumhuriyah street, to protect shoppers from the ever-present danger of bomb explosions.

Despite the reopening of the roads around Shorjah, a curfew and checkpoints have made predawn shopping impossible.

"In the past, we used to visit each other early in the morning, before the fast began," said Shihab Ahmed, a teacher. "But now, we cannot do that because of the curfew and the general security situation."

Starkly illustrating the danger, one man with hearing aids declined to talk because his hearing was severely damaged by an explosion in the market. Another shop owner declined to give his name, for fear of assassination. He lamented that the scalding heat had kept some shoppers away.

Other market-goers bemoaned rising prices in recent years - food prices in Iraq doubled between 2004 and 2008, compared to 73 per cent increases globally, according to the United Nations.

"Prices have risen a lot, and are rising more now with the beginning of Ramadan," said Ahmed Assim Al-Dabbagh, a university professor. "But despite that, Shorjah remains a commercial symbol - it has beautiful traditions and memories."

Through it all, however, Abu Issam and his son have worked in Shorjah, making ends meet and tying their fate to the rise and fall of the market.

"I have worked here since 1956," he said. "I have not changed my work yet."

* Agence France-Presse