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.