Souks (souqs) are vibrant, colourful spectacles, filled with wondrous aromas, chaos, and excitement when bartering for new treasure. These are just some of the joys of souks. From Nizwa, Oman to Essaouira, Morocco they provide an opportunity to experience a taste of the culture of the destination.
They assail the senses, walled labyrinths of sound, with a palette of dazzling hues, and shades, fragrant spices, musk or the powerful aroma of live animals, that squawk, and grunt from within wooden cages.
“Souks are a barometer of the society”
A souk maybe most people’s first, or even only experience of a vastly different culture, some thrive in the inharmonious disorder of the ramshackle market stalls. Others are so intimidated they quickly find sanctuary in nearby coffee shops, shying away from the constant attention of stallholders, eager to try their sales pitch, and selling a myriad of wares.
Souks are a barometer of the society, indicating how the local people may interact with visitors. the souk in Nizwa, is typical of the hassle free authenticity of the Sultanate. It consists of several smaller souks selling a variety of goods, from pottery to rifles …… yes, rifles. It is however, less claustrophobic, or stressful for anyone seeking a more gentle initiation to the chaotic bartering, and without the barrage of attention.
The Nizwa souks border the fort which is the centrepiece of the ancient city, and in contrast to the large souks of Marrakech, or Cairo are remarkably orderly, even ‘civilised’. The traders are not aggressive salesmen, do not hassle tourists, some invite visitors to view their merchandise, but seldom press the matter, a few actually seem to ignore browsers until asked a direct question.
Haggling is apparently not encouraged either, as a companion discovered, attempting to initiate the process, only to find the trader indifferent, and not prepared to discuss reducing their price at all.
There were not many tourists around, and maybe this is the reason, trading is for Omanis, and not western visitors. Although there were several souvenir stalls, most seemed to have large clay pottery for sale, which isn’t really suitable for outside visitors. Often unglazed, and therefore lacking the decoration which would appeal to the average traveller. They hang from ropes, are piled along walls, or on simple wooden shelving, it seems impossible not to trip over them everywhere, in fact I did just that, fortunately not causing any breakage.
“an assortment of high velocity weapons”
It came as little surprise that several stalls were selling Khanjars, the highly decorative dagger which Omani men wear for ceremonial purposes. However, exploring some of the small back alleys, discovering shops with hundreds of rifles for sale was certainly unexpected.
These gunsmiths were selling old bolt-action Enfields, and even semi-automatic rifles, their shop walls adorned with an assortment of high velocity weapons. They weren’t just for show either, belts with high calibre rounds such as 7.62mm hung fully loaded from hooks, and piles of self-loading magazines were clearly visible.
Among the pottery, and gunsmiths there are stalls selling incense, Oman being one of the major produces of Frankincense. These fragrances are important in Omani culture, dating back to the times when they were basically deodorant, masking body odour. Even now, in the souk it is possible to buy special frames on which to hand clothing, using an incense burner to infuse the fabric with the musky scents.
On Friday, the livestock market comes to town, trucks from the surrounding farms transport goats, sheep, cattle, and even camels, penned, or caged, to allow prospective buyers to inspect the live commodities before suggesting a price.
There were several Omani women browsing the souk, mainly the fruit, and vegetable stalls, but most were men. Dressed in immaculate white, or pastel coloured dishdashas, testing the weight, and handling of weapons, chatting on street corners, or sipping strong Omani coffee laced with cardamom, or mint tea outside small coffee kiosks.
This is the appeal of Oman, an authentic culture, especially away from the main cities of Muscat, or Salalah where most tourists tend to visit. Conservative by nature, but often liberal in their dealings with tourists, an open, friendly people, that are very hospitable hosts. Omani society seems to manage to blend the traditional, with the modern better than many other cultures.
Nizwa may not be as large, vibrant, or colourful as other more well-known souks. It may not have the cut, and thrust of haggling in Marrakech, the raw, unsterilised market culture of Fez, or even the choice of Muttrah, but it still packs a powerful punch. Those seeking a genuine souk experience, without the hassle would do well to consider this ancient city souk.