“Madam, this is 75 Dirhams, it’s hand-crafted,” explained the friendly Filipino lady as I tried on a silver ring with a flower motif and tiny aquamarine stones set on the petals of the flower. Rose runs a kiosk, one of several scattered throughout Souq Al Arsah. She makes and sells jewellry – most of it silver with semi-precious stones. “I learned the craft from a Yemeni man here. He also makes and sells,” smiled Rose. “We buy the stones from Yemen and Kuwait.” Other than jewellry, Rose sells souvenirs such as magnets and glass pieces shaped as camels and famous buildings of Dubai. I bought a round, cornflower blue magnet picturing Burj Al Arab hotel for five Dirhams. Similar magnets cost 12-15 Dirhams in Dubai.
Souq Al Arsah is Sharjah’s oldest market, renovated by the Sharjah government and converted into an indoor, air-conditioned souq for a smooth and comfortable shopping experience. ‘Arsah’ in Arabic means ‘courtyard’. Not many people are familiar with Sharjah, sister city to glitzy Dubai and third largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates. Boasting more than twenty museums and an array of souqs, Sharjah lives up to the title bestowed on it in 1998 by UNESCO as the “cultural capital of the Arab world.” The market’s architecture evokes the magic of the Arabian Nights. Gothic arches, wooden latticed balconies, oil lanterns hanging on walls, wooden shop doors and beamed ceilings – all radiate old world charm.
I arrived at Souq Al Arsah at 10 o’clock in the morning, when the place is mostly empty – a good move, since merchants bargain easily with fewer customers around. To attract customers, shopkeepers display some merchandise outside their shops. An ethnic silver jewellry set with jade, citrine, turquoise, amber, and other colourful stones hung outside one shop, which also sells a variety of traditional daggers. Another sells local handicrafts like woven wall hangings, silver-plated mirrors, parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Qur’an, and multihued, painted electric and oil lanterns, some decorated with mosaic tiles.
Al Saeedi Bamboo Products sells hand-woven bamboo baskets flecked with orange diamond patterns, coasters, and placemats. Handmade silk carpets, paintings by local artists, and books on Islam are also sold in the souq. I spotted a cotton tunic, embroidered in typical multi-coloured Kashmiri chain stitch, hanging outside a shop selling textiles from India. The rich velvet cushion covers, beaded and sequined pashmina shawls and Benarsi silk table runners drew me in.
In all souqs, bargaining is the unspoken rule, and I plunged right in. A fuchsia and mint green, 1m-by-1m velvet and silk throw embellished with sequins, round mirrors, glass and wooden beads and tassels, cost 60 Dirhams. Original price – 125 Dirhams. I also bought a curved dagger with a wooden handle – the scabbard decorated with animal hide and engraved silver – reducing the price from 70 Dirhams to 30 Dirhams.
Another kiosk operated by a bearded man had rosaries for the spiritually inclined, which sparkled as the sunlight hit them. Some are crafted here, while others are imported from different countries of the Gulf and Southeast Asia. He had a large selection – plastic, glass, wooden, and semi-precious stone – ranging from 15 Dirhams to some well over 200 Dirhams. Some of the pricey ones included garnet beads, locally known as aqeeq.
The tantalising aroma of hot coffee reached me as I made my way to the coffee shop, which sells an assortment of sandwiches and drinks. As I headed home in the evening, I felt like Ali Baba from The Thousand and One Nights, gleefully emerging from the cave, arms laden with treasures.
Umm-e-Ismaeel has lived in Saudi Arabia, Canada, America, the Czech Republic, and resides in Pakistan. She is a professional ESL teacher. Her travel writing articles and dining reviews have been published in various magazines and ezines. She is passionate about fabric related arts, such as embroidery, handloom weaving, and designing her own clothes, and is currently in the process of setting up her own business.