“Ask him where is he from?” I prompted my translator, Farida, who I bought along for good measure, although I spoke the native language fairly well. Farida translated the question to the shopkeeper, who appeared to be in his late fifties. He was ripping away a tin encasing tamer, and without pausing he replied, “Medina.” Farida asked him how long he had worked in the souk. He paused then, glanced up and pointed to a very old man sitting on a chair few feet away, his eyes nearly closed, but I think he was watching everything. “That is my father,” he said. “And he has been here, sitting on that chair for 57 years.”
Most shopkeepers will tell you similar stories, of generations carrying on family-trade at Kuwait’s only traditional souk. The souk was as much the centre of life as it was of commerce in the bygone era. And to some it’s became a legacy of sorts.
Nestled in the heart of Kuwait’s commercial and financial district, Kuwait’s Souk Al Mubarkiya a.k.a. Mubarkiya is named after the visionary Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah, Seventh ruler of the Sheikdom. Dwarfed by the towering, glittering, glossy skyscrapers, the sprawling souk is a defiant presence of the old world amidst the new. Today, it may be heritage, but in its prime, Souk Al Mubarkiya was a thriving center of trade, politics and socialization.
According to Andy Hayes of www.sharingtravelexperiences.com, Souk Al Mubarkiya is amongst the world’s top 10 best heritage souks, although, some might dispute this claim. Whether you are an avid souk shopper or just touristy, Mubarkiya is worth visiting. Like most residents, I have taken all my guests there, second only to the iconic Kuwait Towers, and definitely, before I head to the malls.
Since the place existed before the advent of motorcars, the alleys and in-roads are narrow and fit for foot-traffic only. In fact, Kuwait Municipality has effectively restricted vehicular traffic within the souk and covered exposed areas shielding shoppers from the harsh sun, while NCCAL has resorted crumbling old buildings from vanishing into oblivion.
Must See, Must Do
The northern Mubarak Kiosk, a two-storey building in the main square, is one of the first two kiosk established in 1897 by the late Sheikh Mubarak, which doubled up as his ‘office’ where he met with locals and addressed their concerns. During its 115 years of existence, it has been a court, a pearl diving affairs office, a post office, a real estate records office, a pharmacy, a library and in 2011 it was declared a Museum. I hid a smile as I noted its date of opening – 23rd March, which happens to be my DOB!
If you are a collector, do not forget to check out the antiquity shops around, provided you have the patience to search, as many of them are jam packed treasure troves! Make it a point to enjoy the open-air restaurant which serves grilled kebabs, tikkas, humus as well as other dishes –definitely, one of the best eating spots in the country.
Souks within the Souk
A window to a by-gone world, the souk gives visitors a glimpse of what life was before the discovery of oil. Elderly gentlemen sit in their shops – now mostly out of habit – or several of them seated on wooden benches sipping endless chai (black tea). Sniveled as they might seem, these men will bestow upon you the most courteous of smiles.
Commodity specific souks lie within the marketplace. These include the oldest being the Al Gharabally souk, the traditional Bisht souk, souk al Hareem, Persian carpets souk, and the Gold souk mainly.
Souk Al Hareem is the perfect place to see Bedouin women, still selling hand made items and the medicinal oil Abu-fas. Dressed in the traditional black with their faces covered except for their eyes, which are thickly khol lined, and palms decorated with henna, they paint a distinctive picture of tribal women. There is a story that runs in my family about how I was once lost in this very market as a little girl, although I was too young to remember it myself. Then, the place was densely populated and most women dressed in the traditional black Abaya. Somehow, I had left my auntie’s hand, and then latched onto another woman’s, tagging along – because they all looked the same!
Five things of interest you’ll find at the souk:
- Bisht – A traditional garment worn by men in the region
- Traditional sweets such as Rahas. One sweet resembled and was actually called bamiya agal
- Incense and the famed Bukhoor
- Misbah – prayer beads, some made of colourful gem stones or wood
- Traditional hand woven items called Al Sadu, a preserved tradition of Kuwaiti Bedouin
Everywhere you look, you will find the traditional juxtaposed with modernity. Sandwiched between two half-a-century old shops, you find a Crocs outlet or a mobile phone store. Yet, Souk Al Mubarkiya is more than a place where you will find antiques or delicacies –it is a tradition worth preserving.
WORDS: SHABANA H. SHAIKH
Photo Credits: Usman Choudhry, Sue Thompson, Afreen Shaikh