The Blue Souk, Sharjah

by Garry Craig Powell

The UAE is famous for its shopping, particularly its huge shopping malls, which I heartily detest, but some of the more old-fashioned souks or markets can be interesting. This is the Blue Souk in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates (Shariah law holds sway here, because the sheikhdom is supported by Saudi Arabian money, so alcohol is completely forbidden here, even in the foreign hotels). The stalls inside sell carpets from all over the Middle East, but Iran especially, with a fair number from Afghanistan and Baluchistan as well, as well as antiques. You can find the traditional silver jewelry which women used to wear–since the oil boom, they’ve worn little but gold–which is heavy but in my opinion more beautiful than the delicate western-inspired jewelry worn now. I particularly like the forehead circlets, from which silver coins (usually Habsburg Maria Theresas, or copies thereof) hung, and the heavy anklets. There are all kinds of weapons too–the curved dagger or khanjar, which I’ve mentioned before, and which plays a part in “The King of Kandy”–Kamila has an urge to snatch one from an Omani man and go back to the hotel room she’s been in and run amok–as well as scimitars, and more often, rifles. These range from cheap little Turkish guns, about a hundred years old, to the highly prized European army guns, like the British .303 owned by Badria’s father in “Stoning the Devil”, with which he is supposed to have shot a number of enemy tribsemen in a feud when he was a young man. Beautiful brass and silver coffee pots abound as well. I’ve also seen Portuguese sea chests, or chests which the sellers claimed were Portuguese, dating back, so they said, to the sixteenth century. Early gramaphones are common too; I own a His Master’s Voice one, which probably dates to the nineteen twenties. You’ve probably heard that you have to bargain in the souks, and this is quite true. If you don’t, not only will you pay too much, but you’ll deprive the seller of the pleasure of arguing with you. If you do it right, it takes a long time. Usually the seller will order you tea, or a cold drink, and often will invite you to sit on a carpet as you talk. These conversations can take a long time, and at the end of them you feel almost like friends. As a Kashmiri carpet merchant said to me once, a good bargain is one in which both the seller and the buyer come out happy. How true that is! And what a civilized way to go shopping it is.

Once again the photo was taken by my esteemed friend, Yolanda Reinosa. Thanks, Yoly.