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Volume 49, Number 4July/August 1998

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The Suqs of 'Asir

Written by Ni'Mah Isma'il Nawwab
Photographed by Peter Sanders

In the far southwest of Saudi Arabia, the highland city of Abha was once a strategic point on the ancient spice route that linked far southern Arabia—modern Yemen—with the Mediterranean. Today, it is capital of the province of 'Asir, whose spectacular terraced fields and soothing, temperate climate provide an unexpected contrast to much of the rest of the country, and which is thus one of the most popular travel destinations within the kingdom. Nearby, Mt. al-Sudah rises to 2910 meters (9457'), the highest point in Saudi Arabia, and, going in the other direction, a cable car plunges more than 300 meters (9751') to the ghost town of Habalah, where a farming community for centuries used a single hanging rope as its sole tie to the outside world. Throughout the province, visitors enjoy walks among the villages dotted with brightly painted mud-and-stone houses, an attractive architectural feature of the region.

Yet all travelers to Abha share a common desire: to visit the famous suqs. The scents, sounds and wares of these traditional markets are today often as enticing—and even exotic—to Saudi urbanites as they have been for centuries to visitors from the West and Far East.

In the past, however, these markets served a more local function: They were the place where members of different tribes met not only for trade, but also to discuss marriages, crops, business prospects and politics. Today, the suq retains these social and economic functions, though in forms adapted to modern times.

Following tradition, the suqs are open in a different town each day of the week, with each market named after either the day or the town, or both. This practice has for centuries allowed merchants to cover a larger territory, although not all merchants sell in every market: The Suq al-Thaluth, or "Tuesday market," in Abha and the Suq al-Khamis, or "Thursday market," in Khamis Mushayt, the second city of the province, are the largest and most renowned.

I couldn't miss the site of the Tuesday suq in Abha when I decided to visit it, surrounded as it was by a bustle of cars, pickup trucks and people, all of which had been converging since the end of dawn prayers. Upon entering, to my surprise, I felt like a stranger, an outsider. Although I have long been familiar with suqs in other parts of the country, I realized how accustomed I have become to doing my shopping in air-conditioned stores and shopping malls. Here, the open-air market, with its spread-out stalls and neighborly vendors, was a wonder to me.

Contrasted with Abha's otherwise quiet morning streets, the calls of the vendors and the sounds of people bargaining and talking among each other were overwhelming. I gazed about at young and old, city dwellers and villagers, some from distant places speaking Arabic dialects even I could barely understand, and wearing equally distinctive, often colorful regional garments.

The most eye-catching are the people of Najran, a region some three hours' drive southeast of Abha, famed for its honey, where the men often wear bunches or garlands of sweet-smelling flowers about their heads. Their bright, multicolored, sarong-like izars, topped by black embroidered jackets, are a colorful contrast to the desert-adapted plain white Saudi thawb. Those rural Najrani men who are not beekeepers are mostly shepherds, and a few are farmers.

The market is organized by trades, as it has been since time immemorial, and loosely arranged in sections that appeal largely to men or to women, even though the two genders mingle freely throughout the suq. One side of the square is filled with honey stalls; another side is made up largely of stalls run by women. In the central area, merchants selling all types of wares spread their goods on the ground.

The honey stalls feature white and golden local honey, as well as imported varieties. It is often swarmed by customers as thickly as it once was by the bees of 'Asir, who draw on the area's unique combinations of vegetation to create superbly aromatic, rich honeys that are often used in local cooking. (See Aramco World, January /February 1995.)

As I made my way into the central area, I found it too was divided by type of merchandise. There were separate areas for merchants of vegetables, fruits, livestock, outdoor plants and, on plastic ground-sheets, clothes—new and used—shoes, toys, candy and a variety of locally tailored coats of goat or lamb's wool.

As I looked up from examining an enticingly smooth leather sandal, I spotted the jambiyah (dagger) merchants sitting cross-legged next to each other, expounding freely on the provenance and virtues of each of their weapons, many of which are more intricately worked than the best of women's silver jewelry. There were khanajir, the short, curved daggers, and also the longer janbiyyat from as far away as Oman. The merchants obviously knew each other well, and I could tell that they took pleasure in their competitive camaraderie, waging a war of prices on their customers in which each merchant was bound to know the other's next move long before any but the most savvy customer could guess it. And theirs were not arguments over a mere riyal here or there: Despite the change in function from necessary weapon to sartorial decoration, prices of such daggers have risen to the equivalent of $300 to $3000.

As I entered the women's suq, I noticed that most of the vendors were 40 or older. Women much below that age are generally engaged either with young children, or with studies or the professional opportunities that have become more abundant for the younger generations. Here many of the women vendors wear dresses embroidered with locally specific designs, cut similarly to the traditional dresses of Egypt and Palestine. (See Aramco World, January /February 1997.) The women hawk locally produced items such as straw baskets—ranging in size from pinbox to family laundry basket—woven from palm fronds and decorated with geometric designs made with natural dyes of red, turquoise and burgundy. When fitted with a traditional conical lid and covered with goat's leather, such baskets can serve to store or carry everything from sewing kits and fabrics to dates and other food.

One of the suq's most enterprising women, Umm Ibrahim, started a thriving business when she noticed that her baskets were especially popular with international visitors. First a dress vendor—her son now manages the dress business, also based in the suq—she not only organized a group of women to work at turning out baskets to sell in what became the biggest basket stall in the market, but she also began transporting truckloads of baskets to customers as much as 1500 kilometers (1000 mi) away, including Dhahran, where "the basket lady" has become well known.

Another popular and practical item from the women's suq is the tafashah, the wide-brimmed straw hat characteristic of the area that is used by both men and women while herding or farming in the sun-soaked, high-altitude villages of the province. According to tafashah merchant Umm 'Abd Allah, always the first to tout her wares, this hat and another high-crowned type (the latter favored by inhabitants of the lowlands of Tihamah), "are among the goods most sought after in the suqs all over 'Asir."

The women also offer handmade products such as the brightly painted clay incense burners and miniature 'Asiri houses that are popular knickknacks, especially among Saudi city-dwellers. The model houses are examples in miniature of what the province's women actually do on a much larger scale: The clean whites and dozens of vivid colors that make the region's homes so distinctive have long been prepared by women. In the traditional home, women are responsible for plastering and painting the walls, corridors and ceilings after men finish building them. This practice has resulted in uniquely expressive interiors, as women often compete with neighbors and relatives in the development of elaborate geometric patterns and color combinations. Saudis from other areas of the country often find these colorful houses of 'Asir a source of wonder, an outspoken contrast with what have become the customary Saudi residences, which are decorated in far more uniform fashion, much like European and North American homes.

Abha's suq is also an important center for the richly embroidered velvet dresses that are the mainstay of traditional female costume in southwestern Saudi Arabia. With the dresses are laid out piles of long black or striped undergarments edged with intricate needlework, as well as cotton cheesecloth head scarves with colorful tassels. Tasseled headscarves are also found in Taif, a few hundred kilometers north, but not elsewhere in the kingdom.

In the past, most of the dresses, particularly those used for formal occasions, were hand-embroidered, and today a well-made dress can sell for up to $1300. Unlike most traditional Saudi dresses, which are loosely styled for comfort in extremes of heat, the dresses of 'Asir are designed with a form-fitting cut and tight sleeves to fend off the chill of the highland air. That they are velvet, too, is a choice made to combine comfort and warmth in a mountain climate.

Nowadays, however, mass-produced 'Asiri dresses are available relatively inexpensively in colors ranging from traditional black to yellow, blue, green and even red. Each is abundantly stitched on the sleeves, chest and sides in long flowing panels. "Every day, when I was young," says Umm Ibrahim, "I used to cut out and sew 20 dresses. By the end of the day, they were ready to be sold." Now she and her family supervise a team of tailors, and she ships far more than 20 dresses each day to merchants and stores all over the country.

Further along, artfully strung Bedouin silver jewelry—long made mostly by Saudi, Indian and Pakistani artisans—sparkled from other stalls. There is so much of this jewelry in this market and the others of the province that collectors are frequent visitors here, and the women vendors can often negotiate in English as well as Arabic.

As I ventured into the dim recesses of one shop, the owner smiled, welcomed me, and showed me rows of tin cans, each filled with a different type of jewelry, no two pieces alike: huge rings, amber necklaces, intricately designed belts studded with red or blue beads, heavy bracelets, enormous anklets and broad headpieces.

In such a business, recognizing a genuine piece—as opposed to an imported imitation—requires a careful and experienced eye. All the jewelry features motifs such as crescents, bells and filigree work, but the roots of the designs are found in the centuries of Arab trade with Byzantium, Rome, Greece, Phoenicia, China, Africa, India, Central Asia and even medieval Scandinavia. The silver used in newer pieces is often recast from older ones; some less than scrupulous artisans will blacken their pieces to give them an antique look in hopes of commanding a higher price. Many of the old silversmiths lament the decline of their business caused by young people's preference for modern jewelry that does not use the traditional motifs. They find even more disturbing the trend of gold-plating old silver jewelry to create an illusion of the more desirable metal.

Not far along in the suq there is a lure that surpasses silver: frankincense. The sight of frankincense alone is enough to take one back to the days when camel caravans traced trails across the deserts of Arabia, a time when incense and perfumes ranked among the most desirable goods in the world. To this day, the aura connected with incense persists in homes throughout Arabia, where it is still traditional for hosts to offer guests incense or perfume—which in 'Asir is often mixed in the home—before they leave one's house.

Female merchants sell this frankincense as bark, as rolled balls of gum, or palm-sized pressed disks of incense mixed with sandal-wood and other aromatic woods. The vendors call out, "Come here! Come, smell how lovely these are!"

Because they are so popular, frankincense and other perfumes are also sold by men in other stalls in another part of the market. The most coveted perfumes are 'itr al-ward, attar of roses (see Aramco World, November/December 1997), and dihn al-'ud, an aromatic wood extract. Musk and jasmine are next in popularity. Both male and female 'Asiris also often use local herbs to perfume their bodies and their homes. It is not unusual to see men here with sprigs of basil or jasmine rucked into headbands, or to enter a home where bunches of aromatic plants and flowers exude a refreshing scent.

As I wandered farther, a gust of wind carried the punchy scent of the coffee and spices sold in the open in the delightful patchwork of the spice market. (See Aramco World, March/April 1988.) Here, spices and grains, coffee beans, dates and wheat are all sold from huge baskets not unlike burlap bags. Each merchant carefully mounds the colorful grains and spices for display, pleasing both eye and nose with rows that can be inspected and tasted on the spot. One notable scent is cardamom, the most popular spice in Arabia, which flavors many a dish and is an essential ingredient in Arab coffee. (See Aramco World, March/April 1997.) Ginger, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and cumin, too, all enrich the air. Children gather about the pistachios, cashews, peanuts and almonds that appear in plastic containers next to the spices and the sweets that fill still more bins.

'Asir is known throughout Saudi Arabia as the place to find the finest grades of coffee from Yemen. (See Aramco World, September/ October 1997.) In 'Asir, the best are generally agreed to be the Yemeni Khawlani beans, which are their own shade of greenish-brown. In the Tihamah lowlands, some farmers grow coffee beans similar to the Yemeni types, but so far they haven't been able to equal the quality of the coffee from Yemen itself.

It is not uncommon for Saudis to come to a market like this and buy coffee in bulk, for it is used throughout the year on every occasion, big or small. Arabs' love of coffee is legendary, and directly connected to the ways Saudi hosts show hospitality, a very important virtue. Many writers have described with fascination the ways in which Arab coffee is roasted, ground, mixed with spices, brewed and served. But in truth, few families roast their own coffee any more, and most buy it already ground, either here at the suq—for the best—or in grocery stores in towns and cities. Aside from the love of a well-prepared bean, the only truly enduring coffee custom is how it is served: three times, and in demitasses.

In addition to cardamom, Arab coffee is occasionally also spiced with saffron, cloves and other spices, all according to the preferences and the creativity of whoever prepares it. Thus its flavor can differ from region to region and from home to home. In Abha, many prefer it with ginger, cloves or a mixture of the two.

Herbs—cosmetic or medicinal—also draw crowds around their vendors and exude another distinctive aroma. Here in the women's suq, henna stalls are always popular conversation spots, and during the examination of the different varieties there is discussion among friends, relatives and strangers about how to mix it for the most attractive red highlighting in the hair. For special social and festive occasions such as weddings, women will buy henna to mix into a paste with which they painstakingly draw floral and geometric designs on their hands and feet. In 'Asir, older women often mix henna with dried black limes to dye their hair black.

Herbal medicines are here, too, and the vendors are informal, traditional apothecaries, dispensing a time-tested and generally inexpensive pharmacopoeia. Umm Ahmad, a herb vendor, says, "We like to use herbs as medicines because they have become part of our heritage. Our ancestors used them and passed them on to us, and we know how useful they are because they really can cure."

At the end of a day's shopping, the task of carrying one's purchases out of the crowded market is no small matter. At the edges of the suq, people can be seen loaded down with baskets, bags of coffee, bundles of frankincense and more bags of vegetables, often with a pair of sandals or child's sneakers dangling from a basket-handle. After the jostling crowds and the bargaining—which among regulars creates a strong bond between adversaries—it is the friendliness of the vendors that can be the most memorable experience, the faces that can later be connected in memory to each item purchased. On any day of the week, all depart the suqs with echoes of the popular Arabic greeting that is uniquely 'Asiri: "Marhaban alf!" or "A thousand welcomes!"

Ni'mah I. Nawwab writes on Arabian history, customs and traditional arts from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Free-lancer Peter Sanders has photographed throughout the Islamic world for more than 25 years. He lives northwest of London.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the July/August 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1998 images.