The Souqs: A Week in Jeddah

I didn’t really want to go into many malls on my trip to Jeddah, but the souqs are the modern descendants of what once were the outdoor markets where farmers and traders would congregate to sell their wares. Its changed a lot since then, but I wanted to see it anyway. Al Balad has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has perhaps the best representation of what the old souq would have looked like, and Al Shati is up in one of the ritzier neighborhoods and is a pretty good representation of the modern souq. Enjoy!

Al Shati

Sadly, I have no pictures at all of this souq. I didn’t arrive until well after sunset on a Friday night, so the place was pretty much packed, and I didn’t want to upset anyone taking pictures with so many people.

This  souq is much more modern than Balad, but also smaller. There weren’t any multi story mall like buildings at all. On the outer fringes of the souq were some larger department stores. The souq itself was a sort of grid and multiple courtyard set up. See the satellite view on the map. There are two main courtyards that have a snack stand in the center, amusement rides for kids placed around the courtyard, and plastic bolted down chairs and tables in between.

It looks all nice and geometrical from the air, but on the ground its really disorienting, particularly since in addition to the air conditioned shops in the buildings, there are a myriad of tiny kiosks, carts and blanket top sellers in between them.

Not much ground to cover, but definitely plenty of shops. Every inch of building is a shop, plus all the ones in open space. I enjoyed going into the fancy abaya shops to see what the high class ladies of Jeddah were into. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous that we can’t wear more styles here in Tabuk, there were some really beautiful abayas there, and most of them weren’t too much more expensive than the ones I own.

I tried to find a new hijab that would be ok to wear in Tabuk but have a little bit of flair, but there just wasn’t anything like that. Everything was either very plain black or very very colorful.

There were also some nice jewelry places, selling gold and silver as well as other types. I’m not really that into jewelry, but I was looking for something nice to bring back to a friend in Tabuk. The silver is actually sold by weight, even when it is set with other stones, which I found interesting. Not a bad price, I guess. I found a delicate silver bracelet set with opals that would have been about 32$ US.

Remembering that Saudis tend to prefer gold, I found a little bracelet with heart charms on it, which she turned out to really like, so I feel like that was a mission accomplished.

I also found a really cheap clothing store where everything seemed to be 20 SAR (about 5$), so I got some clothes there. I got a pretty shimmery  skirt, that fabric that can’t make up its mind what color it is depending on how you look at it, sort of dusty rose and golden bronze. Its a little long, but I can hem it, and it follows my rule of not paying more than 5$ for clothes that need alterations. I got a lightweight black long sleeved open fronted shirt thing, since need stuff to wear over the tank tops at work. However, it tore in the laundry, so that may have been a mistake.

Finally, I found what may be the coolest steam punk skirt I’ve seen outside a cos-play competition. Its not real leather, but that’s ok. It’s also a teeny bit too small, but also way too long, so I’m just going to pull out the zipper and lower the whole waistline. Since I won’t be able to wear it until the winter sets in, or possibly until I get back to America, there’s no rush.

All in all, Shati isn’t pretty or historically significant, but its a fun place to shop that has a lot more character and flavor than a shopping mall.

Al Balad

This was one of my big to-do items since I found out I was coming to Saudi because of the UNESCO thing, so I set aside basically a whole day to to it, even though the souq doesn’t really get going until after 4pm. I got dropped of on the very edge of the neighborhood by a very passive aggressive taxi driver, and followed the stream of people walking toward the tall buildings while trying to puzzle over my gps map as to which direction I needed to go in.

It was just after Asr so still reasonably light. The first things I came across were tall mall like structures, but a little more like the Silk Market in Beijing than the other malls I’d seen in Saudi. Tall buildings stuffed with little stands and shops selling clothes, electronics, jewelry, perfume and shoes. Sadly, unlike the Silk Market, no shops selling artwork.

I drifted around several such buildings until I heard the call to Maghrib and sat down next to a fountain to wait for all the shops to reopen.

Finally, after leaving yet another high rise souq, I spotted some signs that pointed to the historical district. As I left the high rises behind, the area became a little shabbier but with a lot more character. There were a few permanent shade structures build over the main paths and an endless number of side alleys cross connecting the twisting roads. There were permanent shops with air conditioning along the larger paths, and people set up with rolling carts or even just blankets full of goods anywhere they could find a space.

More than anywhere else I’d been, I could see the influence of the Silk Road on the two cultures. The whole area reminded me of nothing so much as the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, the former western capital city of China. It really felt like there was a path connecting the two points nearly a whole continent apart.

IMG_0167Eventually, after walking in a few circles, I found the historical center. I didn’t take many pictures in the souq because there were so many people, and its really rude to take pictures of people here, but I managed to snap a few of the landmarks.

Continuing on, I found the food area where fresh produce and meat was on display in every window and cart. And eventually wandered in to what seemed to be a home goods area. I’d clearly left the fashion/jewelry/perfume area and found the place where the locals came to get what they needed.

I parked it on a concrete block to wait out the Isha’a prayer closings, then set about to get my own shopping done. I wanted something to make my hijab easier (pins, clips, a different style, whatever), and I wanted my own shisha pipe (hookah). I knew I should be able to find both in Balad.

The first part was pretty simple, since there were tons of little stands selling abaya and hijab stuff. I wasn’t sure what to ask for, though, so I had to go by looking at what was on display. Eventually I found these little head band/do rag like things that are designed to go under the hijab. They cover the upper forehead and keep the bangs from falling. Also, they create a better surface for the hijab itself to drape on than hair which is pretty slippery.

I got two for 5 SAR each and man does it make a huge difference. I don’t think I’ll use them just going to and from school because there’s no point, but when I’m going shopping, especially if I’m walking in lots of wind, its great to know I have an easy way to keep the darn thing from slipping out of place and won’t have to be fighting with it every 5 minutes to hide my hair again.

The shisha pipe was more challenging. I’d tried to find one in Tabuk to no avail, and I’d asked some folks online who lived in Jeddah where to go, but really didn’t get any solid answers (you know, like an actual store name and Saudi version of address) just vague areas of town, or even whole roads with no cross streets. Google was also no help, since as I observed previously, most businesses aren’t registered with them, so don’t show up in searches or on maps.

After almost 4 hours of wandering the Balad neighborhood and various souqs without spotting a single shisha, I finally decided to bite the bullet and ask for directions. Its not that I’m opposed to asking for directions. I love asking for directions, but cultural barriers such as language, gender and people trying to sell me stuff I don’t want made me hesitant to talk to anyone in the souq.

I picked out one of the home wares shopkeepers, figuring his livelihood relied less on tourists than on regulars, and tried my Arabic, amounting to the very complex sentence “where shisha?”. Hard to mess that one up. He seemed surprised (women don’t often smoke in public), and repeated shisha? miming the act of smoking the water pipe. Nam, yes. I replied. He did some pointing and gesturing while describing directions in Arabic I had no hope of understanding, but the gestures were clear, go back up this road and turn left. So I thanked him, figuring that if all else failed, I would ask directions again in a couple blocks.

As it turns out, they were excellent directions. I took the first left and almost immediately ran into a small shisha shop. The men inside were very young, they looked like high schoolers, and I assumed their family must own the shop for them to be working in it. One of them spoke very good English and they were quite pleased to help me out.

The young man made sure that his compatriots didn’t short weigh the shisha tobacco I bought, made sure to take apart and reassemble the pipe so I could see how it worked, and threw in some foil. I don’t know if I should have haggled, or if I could have gotten a better price, but I got the pipe with a nice hard-sided/padded interior carrying case, a half kilo of shisha, a huge box of coconut husk coals, and a box of shisha foil for less than 30 USD, and they were nice, so I’m not going to complain.

My missions all accomplished, sight seeing and shopping, I legged it over to a larger road to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Definitely a place worth wandering around. Pretty sure you can buy anything that’s for sale in the Kingdom here, and its pretty. I didn’t get to see the Museum because it was closed by the time I found it, but it gives me something to look forward to on another trip.

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One thought on “The Souqs: A Week in Jeddah

  1. Pingback: Overview: A Week in Jeddah | Gallivantrix

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