From research and travel, I've found that Arab suqs – or bazaars – are much more than colorful tourist attractions. They are the heart of economic life in cities from Cairo to Muscat and the one place where visitors can get a clear view of local life: the customs, the food, the laughter and the fashion.
They're not always elegant, true. But they're real.
Suqs, unquestionably, are colorful. I once, for example, had my fortune told by a monkey in the suq in Morocco's Marrakesh. I was still new to the world of the suq then, so when the monkey, scrambling about the tiny stall, picked three quills from a jar I had to ask the monkey's owner for help.
"Each quill represents an important part of your life: health, wealth and love," the man explained.
"But what do they mean?"
"They mean you will enjoy blooming health, marry someone very rich and bear him 10 children," he smiled. 'That's five dirhams ."
"Five? No, two."
"Two? Then you will never marry."
"Three, yes." He smiled again. "But only five children."
There, briefly, was my fortune and an essential point about the suq: you can bargain for anything. I know it is a cliche but it is still a fact; as one writer put it, "what matters is not the bargain but the bargaining." (See Aramco World, May-June 1965)
That writer, as it happens, was talking about the Damascus suq, not the one in Marrakesh. But the principle is the same throughout the Muslim world. In Isfahan, for example, I debated three days on the price of an old ivory miniature, then, enroute to the airport, stopped at the suq again and had the taxi wait. The owner was so impressed by my persistence that he immediately cut the price in half.
But the bargaining is just part of the colorful life down there in the small, narrow streets, the porticoes and shady squares. To put it another way, the merchants are often more interesting than the merchandise. In Cairo's Khan Khalili suq , for instance, there was a perfume merchant the size of a camel, but he had hands like a Swiss watchmaker and had spent 40 years delicately blending sandalwood and attar. And in Tripoli there was Azzam abu Majid Hassun. He was 12 years old and already a master engraver.
In my travels I have visited most of the major cities of the Arab East, North Africa and Iran, including Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Beirut, Tripoli, Manama, Kuwait, Doha, Salalah, DubavBuraimi, Muttrah, Muscat, Tunis, Sfax, Sousse, Kairouan, Nabeul, Djerba, Tangier, Rabat, Marrakesh, Ifrane, Fez, Tripoli, Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, Amman and Damascus. And inevitably I've found that the real pulse of these cities is in the suq : the endless beat of buying and selling and the endless rhythm of craftsmen at work – cobblers tapping on soft leather, tailors working gold threads into embroidered belts and, up dark stairways, women weaving carpets, their fingers flying quickly over high-warp looms.
Suqs, furthermore, are often beautiful. There is the Muttrah suq for example, spread along abay in the Sultanate of Oman, with its memorable fragrance of spices, brine and incense and its odd jumble of merchandise: coffeepots and television sets sharing shelves with sharkskin shields and rows of digital watches.
My favorite, however, is the huge suq in Marrakesh, a labyrinth lit with shafts of sunlight and heaped with mounds of embossed leather hassocks, into the Jma el-Fna, a restless square swarming with traders, shoppers, performers and tourists.
Marrakesh is especially lovely when the sun sets behind its pink ramparts and streams of people pour into the square while blue-turbanned Saharan musicians pound goatskin drums, boy acrobats fling themselves skywards and my monkey-man waves his jars of colored quills at customers eager to hear their future. It is unforgettable: traders drinking mint-tea and eating mountains of yellow cous-cous in open air cafés, women in long jellabahs crossing the square with averted eyes, and, evening after evening, a blind man selling sprigs of jasmine as he threatens and cajoles his way through the tides of people pushing, laughing and bargaining.
My reactions to suqs are not, of course, unique; historically suqs have always delighted foreign visitors. In 1664, for example, a young French traveler named de Thevenot witnessed a parade of craftsmen from the suq in Aleppo and subsequently wrote an account suggesting that he was fascinated. It included, he wrote, shoemakers wearing cone-shaped hats and carrying muskets and swords; eight men carrying a float on which two little boys were making sandals; and a company of confectioners carrying castles of sugar on their heads.
Next, de Thevenot said, came the "gold-spinners," two apprentices on a float actually spinning gold as they were carried through the streets. There were also bakers, tailors and dyers – with an apprentice dyeing cloth red before the eyes of the crowd – and, in order, coffee sellers, butchers, silk-weavers, saddlers, carpenters, gardeners, smiths and barbers.
The parades, in those days common in many Middle Eastern cities, were not simply entertainment. They were held to demonstrate the importance of commerce and crafts in the economy of the great cities of those regions: Marrakesh and Fez in North Africa, Cairo and Damascus in die Middle East, Isfahan and Shiraz in Iran – all part of the extensive Muslim world. All these cities – and in fact every urban center of any size – had an important suq during the Middle Ages.
This economic importance was a result of the spread of Islam. Because the Muslims unified a huge area – and began to strike and standardize their own coins (see Aramco World, July-August l978) – crafts expanded to accommodate a newly flourishing trade. In Cairo, for instance, the suq offered 450 distinct crafts and services.
It was during this period, leather, that the suqs assumed the pattern I had seen everywhere, with all the artisans of a particular craft grouped together: goldsmiths and silversmiths, shoemakers, bakers, carpenters, dyers, tailors and so on.
It certainly makes sense. For one thing, all the artisans in a particular craft used the same raw materials. For another, it allowed the buyer to compare price and quality with very little trouble. It also made the job of muhtasib, the inspector, (see Aramco World, September-October 1977) much easier and, an additional reason, it was a pleasant socially. Men plying the same craft naturally have much in common.
The locations of suqs also make sense. Except for crafts like tanning – which does smell – most suqs are in the center of the city, or what used to be the center, so that people can get to them easily. And there are certain natural locations for certain trades. Booksellers and stationers, for example, are most often clustered around the important mosques, as in Istanbul, Damascus and Shiraz. And in Marrakesh, the central mosque is actually called the Mosque of the Booksellers because some 400 shops selling books and manuscripts were once grouped around it.
Not all of those shops survive today. Indeed, many of the crafts themselves have vanished. The advent of printing, for example, put an end to the many crafts associated with book production since before the Middle Ages: pen cutters, paper makers, paper marblers (see Aramco World, May-June, 1973), calligraphers, ink makers and "saw dusters" – men who sprinkled sawdust on the pages of freshly written manuscripts in order to dry them. Yet the suqs I have visited seem every bit as large and busy as they were in, say, 1900, when there were 235 crafts represented in the Damascus suq .
The explanation, of course, is the inventiveness and adaptability of the craftsmen of the Middle East. Today, for example, what may once have been the shop of a pen cutter is now the shop of a typewriter repairman. For that reason, suqs , despite the growth of factories and large-scale production in the Middle East during the past 50 years, remain the hub of urban life – and are as colorful, exciting and economically important today as they were centuries ago when de Thevenot saw his parade in Aleppo.
Christine Osborne, an Australian free-lance photographer and writer based in London, is the author of The Gulf States and Oman. Her work has also appeared in The Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Toronto Star and Deutsche Zeitung.