Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.

Vendor

If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.

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7 thoughts on “Al Ain’s Old Souk

  1. Thanks for finding time with a new baby to provide another entertaining and informative look at life over there. I love to look at y’all’s photos and read the fascinating details that you always include. Hugs to you all, Amanda

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