Of Bestie’s Air Massage and Christmas Shopping in Arabia...

It felt like time travel. I was walking through the alleyways of an Arabian souq (market), and for a moment, I thought I was wandering across the movie-set of The English Patient. There were vendors selling spices, silver trinkets and various nuts and seeds in their little kiosks or just by the wayside. Arab women clad in their burkas and abayas sat behind their arrays of gadgets and knick-knacks. Their eyes pierced through the inch of opening in their burkas like the full moon on a dark night: mesmerising and inviting, and capable of alluring the vulnerable young men to buy utterly and completely useless things for a riyal or two. Some fell in the trap while the others just stopped for a good bargain. Muffled in the hustle and bustle and the chattering, I could hear the women giggle behind their black masks. Men sat in long, wodden benches in little coffee-shops, smoking; enjoying the mild wintery breeze. There were small stalls and trolleys piled up with layers of gum that looked like honey-bee combs, and there were wheel-barrows that were portable corn stands. The far side of the wheel-barrow had a little coal-fire burning, and the vendors sold freshly cooked corn to the young, old and the hungry – trotting around the souq. Occasionally, my eye would spot the beautiful prayer beads in array, and I fought to resist the temptation to be the world’s largest bead collector.

Walking under the canopies, weaving through the narrow alleyways, I ended up in an open area that somehow reminded me of the Pitt Street and Market Street in Sydney. Only a hundred years earlier, and in a basic, primitive manner. Or was it a flashback of the Fort World Market, I wondered for a moment. But this was grandeur in scale and much more intriguing and interesting in sight. A little boy ran behind a football, and disappeared in to a narrow passageway as I tried to find my bearings.

As I made may way through the open square to reach the other end, I discovered another fascination: the silver shops that sold beautiful Yemeni jewellery. Rough and uneven, with coloured glass-work, they told stories about the nimble hands that crafted the designs. I imagined those beautiful Arab women sitting in their corners in their humble abodes, tinkering with metal to crate these fabulous ornaments. No wonder they wear them with so much pride on occasion, I thought to myself.

Beyond the silver jewellery were the fabric shops. Like the good old story about the black abaya in Prophet Mohammed’s days (peace be upon him), the fabric sellers were the highlight of the market. Yards and yards of beautiful designs in psychedelic colours, drawn like canopies from the roof to the ground covered my sight. From black-on-black designs to everything imaginable under the sun were on offer, and the shop assistants were serenading us to just walk inside and take a look. They knew that if we stepped in, we wouldn’t be able to resist their charm and the attraction of the selection. An occasional tailor shop displayed with much pride some wedding gowns that adorned amazing needle-work. I knew that under the abaya, the Arab women were very fashionable. But this, was far beyond what I have ever imagined. This was Paris, this was haute couture for the average Arab woman.

Just two days before the Christmas, I was discovering the downtown Jeddah. The old market, where sailors from around the world met the Arab merchants long before the dollar was born. Thousands of years later, only the buildings have changed, but not the habits of their inhabitants. They souq is still old-fashioned, they still like to drive a good bargain, and offer you a cup of seylani chaai if you were a good customer.

Wondering through the maze, we were looking for a shop that sold something that was supposedly banned in Saudi Arabia.

And finally, we were directed to a little shop that sat by the waterfront. It looked like mini China and the shop was (cleverly camouflaged?) with cosmetics, cheap electronics and all kinds of fancy items at the entrance. We look around and approach a shop assistant who gestures us to follow him up a wooden staircase. Up the staircase, zig zag through the aisles, we are taken to a back corner and the shop assistant points his hand to a rack, with much delight.

As we see what’s on display, my friend’s face lights up. Underneath a pile of “elegant” lamps that had a not-so-elegant penguin on the box and “Bestie’s air-massagers,” we’ve finally found what’s impossible to find in Saudi Arabia: Christmas Cards.

And they were musical too.

The elegant lamp, the forbidden cards and the Bestie’s Air Massager: New Concept ot (sic) Health


  1. Hahahah
    Ah yes, I remember.
    They sell Valentine's Day cards in a similar fashion too.

    Oh also, Downtown Jeddah (Balad) is also reputed to have a shady sex shop. Go figure :)

    A very happy New Year to you, Wijitha :)

  2. Hey Sabby, Compliments of the season! Oh yeah, my trip to Balad was an eye-opener; to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised with my discoveries is an understatement, really. ;)

  3. Seasons Greetings Serendib isle!This post transported me to another world...really nicely captured!

    Wish you a Happy new year!


  4. Thank you Indyana. Happy new year to you too!

  5. Brilliant. Just brilliant, Wijitha! Particularly loved the first para - it's so well written that you made me visualize the entire thing, not to mention you made me wanna go there. No wonder you're one of my favorite bloggers, if not the most.

    Oh and season's greetings to you mate!

  6. Great post and very interesting Title I must say. i did not know that christmas cards and vday cards were banned.
    Have a great new year !

  7. Lovely post SI! :D

    Happy New Year! :)

  8. Sach, Santhoshi & Chavie,

    Happy New Year to all too..! ;)