Friday, December 12, 2008

Old Jeddah's Bab Makkah Souk

Jeddah, like many cities around the world, has a really interesting mix of ultra-modern and absolutely ancient. Less than a century ago, Jeddah was a completely walled in small city, boarded up at night to keep its residents safe from outsiders. Its location was significant because of its close proximity to the holy city Makkah, the caravan routes, and its position on the Red Sea.

There were four gates - North, East, South and West - where people could enter or leave the city. The walls have long since come down and Jeddah has grown to an important sprawling commercial metropolis. The famous gates have been replicated in various places around town as a nod to the city's history, and one of the gates is located in Old Jeddah, which is also called Al-Balad. To read a bit more about this area and to see more photos, take a look at the last post I did on Old Jeddah and the Al-Balad district.

In the oldest part of the city is, of course, its oldest surviving souk, which is called Bab Makkah. In Arabic, this means "door to Mecca" or "gateway to Mecca." I have been to Bab Makkah several times, mostly in the daytime. My brother-in-law (BIL) loves to point out the old house he and my husband grew up in, the old schools they attended which are in disrepair but still functioning, and the graveyard where their dad is buried - which is inaccessible because it is surrounded by the souks (shops or markets). I try to imagine how it must have been back then when we didn't have all of today's modern conveniences and wonder how I would have managed. But then again, I grew up in an adobe house without air conditioning in the heat of Arizona, so I'm thinking I probably would have survived in this desert too! Somehow we must adapt...

Narrow streets that are barely wide enough for a single car to drive through are lined with colorful shop after colorful shop, offering everything imaginable under the sun. If one wants to go when it is not crowded, the least busy time to go is in the morning during the week during Ramadan, the month out of the year when Muslims do not eat or drink anything at all during the daylight hours. My BIL and my hubby enjoy going down to Bab Makkah during Ramadan to get certain traditional supplies in bulk for various branches of the family, like olive oil, cheeses, and tahini, claiming that the prices are considerably cheaper there. Since it is a long drive down to Bab Makkah - about 45 minutes in good traffic or more than an hour in busy traffic - the rest of the year they usually opt to get these supplies at shops a bit closer to home.

The grocery souks here are so small and crowded that the customers actually have to stand at a counter outside the shop to place their orders and cannot enter the well stocked and crowded shops. Every vendor specializes in only certain products that they sell. One vendor sells only dates, another one sells only nuts or olives, and still others have only meats, or spices or shoes. And the businesses here thrive! There are no taxes and no continual fees for business licenses or occupancy or health inspections to be paid, so small businesses here actually have a much better chance of surviving. And what's more, since the business owners are not nickeled and dimed to death by the government, they don't gouge the customers and the prices they charge are very reasonable and they still manage to make a profit.

Recently we visited Bab Makkah for the first time at night - and not during the weekend - and let me tell you, this place was hopping! Throngs of people bustled about like busy little ants, shopping, working, eating, laughing. Most women were dressed from head to toe in black, although I did see a few African women wearing their colorful native dress. Most of the men were dressed either in the traditional Saudi long white loose-fitting dress, called a thobe, or in the two piece Pakistani traditional dress which consists of very loose long pants topped by a matching big loose shirt that extends down to the knees. The smell of incense permeated the evening air. Bumper to bumper vehicles moving at a snail's pace tried to worm their way through the narrowly tight and overly-crowded streets. It was nearly midnight on a school night and the buzz of activity didn't appear as though it would be letting up any time soon.

Bab Makkah is a place where you negotiate the price with the vendor - you never, ever pay the first price you are quoted. My husband is a natural at haggling over the price with the vendors, but not me. Where I grew up, the prices were marked and that was the price you paid, although right across the border was Mexico, where haggling was commonplace - but unfortunately for me, I still never got the hang of it!

We stopped at a meat vendor's little shop - just to look - and I was astounded by the sight of animals parts I had never even seen offered for sale before - animal parts like hooves, and testicles, and hearts, and kidneys - all sitting out in the warm open air and not refrigerated. We have never purchased any of the meat here, but it is interesting to look at these meats that I haven't had much prior experience with! The presentation is so totally different than the supermarkets back home in America that I am used to. These organ meats are not covered with plastic wrap or kept on ice and just sit in a large plastic bowl out on a table, flies buzzing around freely. My hubby says that when you cook the meats you cook out any bacteria or other germs that might have been present anyway... uh, okay...

On another trip down to Bab Makkah, I was lucky enough to snap a photo of a fellow walking through the marketplace, carrying a huge piece of meat, which he was delivering to one of the meat vendors. He held onto it with his bare hands (no plastic gloves), had it slung over his shoulder and down his back, laying right on his shirt! You just don't see stuff like this where I'm from and I find it fascinating. Hmmm ... I wondered what he smelled liked by the end of his work day ... pity the poor wife who does his laundry!

At one of the spice and incense souks, my BIL purchased two Islamic burial kits - one for a man and the other one for a woman - to donate to a mosque. Each kit consisted of a large box containing everything needed for a proper Islamic burial. Included in the kit were several large pieces of white cloth for shrouding the body, strips of tie cloths, a particular soap for washing the body, a distinct body scrub, some special herbs and spices, disposable gloves, incense, and lots of cotton balls for stuffing into the body's cavities. Islam is very specific about the procedures to follow when someone dies. Muslims are buried as soon as possible and are usually buried in just the shroud - no coffins, and no tombstones.

Also at the spice vendors, huge blocks of various spicy incense are then broken up by hammer into smaller chunks. You can imagine the pleasant scents that emanate from the spice shops! These shops are also loaded with hair products like henna, herbal remedies, and perfumes and oils, stacked from floor to ceiling.

Another vendor's booth has a hanging display of strung dates which look like the old time weiners that used to hang in the butcher shop. Others offer knockoffs of jewelry, perfumes and purses, while down the block you can get all the latest in cell phones or other electronic products. Handmade carts are laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, or socks and underwear, or leather belts.

I enjoy going down to Bab Makkah Souk - it's always an interesting and fascinating time - but I have learned one thing. I'll never go there again during Ramadan in the middle of the day. I almost passed out from a combination of the brutal heat and the fasting! I honestly don't know how the other women there do it - having to wear the black abaya and not being able to at least drink water. Well, come to think of it - I don't know how the men can do it either!


  1. Wow...I've lived in KSA and eaten my share of dates, but wouldn't have figured out what was in the picture if you hadn't told me.

    Great pictures, BTW. Are people usually receptive to having their photo taken? Living there in the early 80s, you definitely heard, "Don't take people's pictures without asking first because many think it steals your soul." Maybe that's changed with the proliferation of digital cameras and cell phones.

  2. this was most the post and photographs...
    learning more and more about your part of the world.

  3. Ahhhh, yes I remember this from my visit last Spring. All the colors and new smells....So different from Seattle, like Pike Place Market or something. And the weather....we could use that warmth about now as we wait for our first snowstorm! I look forward to each of your blogs. They are always great.

  4. Another very interesting posting. I understand the amount of work more then any one but you are providing a service, an education, AND keeping us in touch with what is happening in your NEW life. Merry, merry Christmas sweet girl and may the coming year provide more and more interesting adventures for your blog. Your favorite computer tech!

  5. Suzie, are you a muslim now and thus observe the Ramadan? I thought non-muslim were exempt and could eat, just not in the face of people who are fasting (it makes sense).
    So Ramadan does not permit drinking water in hot climates?
    Do a lot of people fall ill because of this?


  6. Hi Jen - Women are definitely guarded about having their photos taken here, but men are usually more than happy to have their pic taken. I have read that it is perfectly legal to take photos of people here - but I would not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable about it, so I do try to ask first if I am able to.

    Hi GoodLife - Thanks so much for commenting and I'm so happy that you are enjoying my blog.

    Hi Diane - Yes, It's definitely different from Pike Place! I hope to see you next summer when I'm up in your neck of the woods!

    Hi Lawana - Great to hear from you and thanks so much for commenting!

    Hi Anon/Anna - I am learning about Islam and I did particpate in fasting during Ramadan this year. Even when Ramadan falls during the hottest weather, one is not supposed to even drink water, and in a place as hot and dry as Saudi Arabia, you can imagine how difficult that may be. This is why most businesses are closed during the day here and stay open until the wee hours of the morning during Ramadan, and also why most people stay up pretty late, eat again right before sun-up, and then sleep most of the day. Most people avoid going out at all during the heat of the day - it is brutal!

  7. I've alays heard "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun"LOL!
    The dates and spices,oh my! I'm paying an arm -and- a -leg for those items to put in my holiday baking.Talk about being able to shop for fresh food!

  8. My comment has dissappeared?!?
    Ok, I want to go!
    At night, when it's cool!
    I want to get some incense!!!!

  9. Hello Susie, thank you again for sharing more of you life, I had not realised you could not even drink water during daylight hours when its Ramadan.
    I hope you have a good weekend.

  10. My, but all that's interesting! Thank you for all of it, Susie. I could read it for hours. Write a book! Is your husband ok with saying all that stuff? That meat by the way; ugh I don't fancy it at all.

  11. Susie - first of all, I enjoy every posting you do - your blog is amazing -so informative, fun and the pictures are always great - plus, i get to know what you are doing - so far away. so, I know it is a lot of work but don't stop!!!!!!

    i find the marketplaces in SA so fascinating. I am wondering if someone can come to visit you - from the states and how hard that would be to do, what they would have to wear and if theyb could go out places???

  12. I have been seeing this blog and I think that city it's an amzing place to live (if you are a man).

  13. This post reminds me of my mother, she loved the old sukhs in jeddah. She could walk around all night and not get bored.

  14. Visiting and living in MENA countries it also surprised me to see meat, diary and eggs outside of fridges ALL DAY long in the hot sun!

    Ye sure it is fresh until in the US where it could be months old better you buy it but still cooling is needed. Buying here is scary in the summer! I tried being vegan but LOL that did not last long!