Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Old Souq

The Old Souq in Abu Dhabi was a place we visited often. In fact, as I type this, I can still smell the small walkways and paths between the shops in the Old Souq. It was a smell of plastic packaging material mixed with that of sunflower seeds, nuts and roasted chicken and lamb from the shawarma stalls. The tiles of the floor were coated with a dark layer of black grit, now chemically united with the brick itself by the pressure of countless shoes of young and old.

Young and old. That was a thing to notice about the Old Souq. It was usually a family gathering, contrasted from the bachelors selling their wares, and the most common sight there would be a woman, clad in a dark-coloured jilbab and a contrasting white scarf walking, her husband pushing a troller with a baby in it. Every once in a while a couple came with a troller with a year-old baby in it being pushed by the father, a baby in the arms of the mother and a 4-year-old toddler trying to keep up.

The shawarmas from the Old Souq were the best I've ever had anywhere. I've had them from Al Ibrahimi Restaurant, the kind Pakistani establishment near Madinat Zayed, I've had them from the school canteen, I've had them from Marroush in Hamdan, from everywhere. Nothing compares to those from the Old Souq. They came with some special vegetables and pickles which I think were not available anywhere else, or were hand-made by some old man who had been doing it his whole life, probably.

Most of the sellers were Irani. Short, stocky men with hairy chests and bushy moustaches, shouting an entire conversation across the central square, bargaining, yelling "do riyal, do riyal, do riyal," meaning "2 riyals," too used to trading in Saudi Arabia that they didn't bother with the currency change from Riyal to Dirham between the Kingdom and the Emirates. Some were skinny, small, dark Indian men, clad in the classic post-colonialist, watered down English-ware, the dark trousers and plain-coloured full-sleeved shirt, untucked, sleeves rolled up to the forearms. They would speed up and down the paths, going from store to store, or sit on a stool, one leg propped up on an object, sipping their tea, trying their best to reel in any human that came within 20 feet of their store.

Loud, tacky, Chinese toys would render the "Lambada" or "It's a Small World" in some mass-produced digital synthesizer, and planes hanging from neon signboards would spin round and round, spilling colors and sounds, attracting the attention of children. Yells of crying children, held on a parent's hip, reaching out to a toy that the parent is trying very hard to bargain over carry across the central square. The parent, distressed by the fact that the shopkeeper obviously perceives the leverage he has in the fact that his child would be in hysterics for the rest of the evening without this toy, tries his best to get a good deal on it, pulling every trick in the bargaining hat to get a deal which he knows will be exorbitantly profitable to the seller.

Pathaans would sit idly, in the typical wooden shoe shops decorated floor to ceiling with classic Afghan sandles, laces for qameezes and an assortment of kufis, prayer beads and branches of Neem tree used as miswak, a Prophetic tradition of impeccable mouth care. Dressed in a grimy grey shalwar qameez and a majestic but girtty white turban with a long tail, stroking their beards, squatting in their little store, they would argue over one thing or another with a friend in the rough, craggy Pushto that they spoke, occassionally reaching over and pushing his friend in jest, cracking jokes, speaking of things unintelligible, completely ignoring customers who idly fingered their wares before moving on.

Well, all this is going to be history very soon. 3rd March was the last day of the Old Souq, as everyone packed their stuff up and made way for the glittering new multibillion-dirham complex that is to be built in its place. Almost as a harbinger of its fall, a fire destroyed a section of the Souq some time in early 2003, and now the final nail has been hammered onto its coffin.

There's something romantic about the past that we grew up in. There's something fundamentally about us, as humans, that resists change. Attending a tutorial a few days ago regarding information that can be gathered from art pieces and the dubiousness of such sources because of artistic embellishment and even more dangerous, omission, it was apparent that landscape painters exhibit this fundamental desire to resist change very poignantly by leaving out modern structures as much as possible in their works.

It is very true, though. I feel that globalization is ruining all sense of originality from the world; cultures are being consumed. Very little is surviving. Maybe many generations from today, people will look back at this era and look at it as one of mass-homogenization.

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)