x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The wise man of Muscat's souk

Few people know the old souk near Muscat's corniche as well as Hassan A Issa, who has worked there for five decades.

Hassan A Issa sits in his shop in the Muscat souk. He has worked in the bazaar for five decades.
Hassan A Issa sits in his shop in the Muscat souk. He has worked in the bazaar for five decades.

MUSCAT // There can be few people who know the old souk near Muscat's corniche as well as Hassan A Issa. The Omani, who says he is "about 75; about 70" years of age, was born in Muttrah, where the souk is located, and has worked there for at least five decades. Somewhat wistfully, he describes how the souk has changed from the days when he first started working there as a young man with his father.

"Before, the shop here sold bread and over there, there was a bread shop. There was a barber," he said, as music hummed from an old-fashioned radio behind him. Over the years, most of the stalls providing basic goods and services have been elbowed out and the crowded lanes are now filled with luxury, unessentials goods such as colourful cushion covers, modern Oman T-shirts and elaborate varnished wooden boxes.

In keeping with its change of emphasis, the souk, while still a bustling centre for local commerce, has become possibly Muscat's biggest tourist attraction. Wide-eyed visitors walk through every few minutes, looking for souvenirs as they take in the myriad scents that waft through the air from the perfume shops. It is a far cry from the days when Said bin Taimur was Sultan and Oman was virtually closed to the outside world, said Mr Issa.

Sultan Qaboos, the ruler since 1970, has gradually opened up the country and Oman has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Middle East. In recent years, to help attract more tourists, authorities have carried out major improvements to the souk, such as putting in new flooring and ceilings and installing toilets. While some residents lament the loss of the souk's rawness, feeling that some of the original character has been lost, at least the changes have not driven away the local customers, who continue to heavily outnumber overseas visitors.

When he first opened his own shop, Mr Issa sold Omani dishdashas, the long tunics, usually white, worn by the country's men. The store also sold watches, radios and air conditioners. The customers were as varied as the goods - and they helped him to improve his language skills. "I know English, I know Balochi, I know Hindi, Urdu, Iranian [Persian]," he said. A decade ago he changed direction to cater to the growing number of tourists.

Souvenirs, such as ornamental boxes with the country's name written across the front, sit in one corner of the shop alongside traditional daggers and hats. Mr Issa can trace his family's presence in the souk back at least 75 years to when his father started work here, but despite being father to four sons and two daughters, he has no one to take over from him. His children either stay at home and do not work or have found better-paying jobs elsewhere.

The absence of an heir who is willing to take over the shop explains why Mr Issa still feels the need to come and work in his shop on a daily basis despite being far past most people's retirement age. "I will give the shop to my children, but my staff will run it," he says, looking over at 26-year-old Asif Sunasoira, his Indian assistant who has worked for him for the past six years. While Mr Issa occasionally reflects with sadness on the ending of his family's tradition of working in the souk, there are other shop owners who have no such concerns.

They are confident that, despite all the upheavals Oman has undergone in the past three-and-a-half decades, their family traditions are safe for at least a generation to come. Among them is Karim Abdullah, 55, who has spent the past 40 years working in the souk, carrying on the family tradition passed down by his father, who himself spent six decades there. He comes in at 9am most days to open the Zeenat Store Handicrafts and Gifts, and sometimes stays as late as midnight.

His shop sells traditional silver daggers, walking sticks, shiny coffee pots, incense burners, candle holders, boxes made from camel bone, model ships and framed pictures. Unlike Mr Issa, Mr Abdullah has a son - and a grandson - keen to take over the shop from him when he decides to retire. Faisal Karim, 31, already has more than a decade's experience of life in the souk behind him, and is happy to share with his father the burden of looking after the store through its long opening hours.

"These are for tourists - this is from Sur, this is from Nazwa," he says, referring to two of Oman's major towns while lifting up some silver jewellery displayed on the bright red wall of his store. "I have been in this shop for 14 years and my son Ali, who is one year old, he comes inside the shop as well. Our family has lived in Muttrah for a very long time and we will stay here." @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae