Al Ain’s Old Souk
Although the word souk in Arabic simply means marketplace, it is so much more than just the buying and selling of produce. It offers a slice of life that dates back to a time before the advent of slick, glittering, sterile malls. It is vibrant with activity, and although mainly the domain of men, many local women still prefer to shop where they can engage in the art of bartering.
The Old Souk in Al Ain crouches close to the Al Ain Oasis with the bus station separating the two. It is here, in the centre of town, that a sliver of the past stubbornly thrives in an abundance of colour, sounds and smells.
The produce from the surrounding farms find their way here in stacks of freshness and vibrant colour.
Date products, homemade pickles and honey from Oman hide behind stalls laden with fruit.
Tucked away in a corner, a spice shop announces its presence through the heady mix of aromas that wafts through the door.
The camel hump is said to be the juiciest and most sought after part of the camel, and is often served on special occasions.
Fresh seafood is brought in early every morning from Ras-al-Khamaih, Dubai and Fujairah.
And then there are the delicious offerings of Omani Halwa, freshly made every day. An arduous process of stirring and boiling that lasts for three hours.
Omani women, selling their wares, add a welcome feminine touch to this otherwise male enclave. They sell all sorts of interesting things: from eggs to dried curd, burkas (the face masks they wear), various incarnations of frankincense, natural deodorant, and everything else in between.
The hardware section of the souk focuses extensively, although not exclusively, on all things camel: shampoo, blankets, muzzles, and even bras to prevent baby camels from nursing at certain times.
And just when you think that there is nothing more to discover, you step outside and find yourself in the company of jovial old men selling little traditional smoking pipes and all the paraphernalia associated with and needed for it.
A visit to this, or any other traditional souk is a delight, especially when guided by someone entertaining and knowledgeable. Amro Abu Kuhail is such a person. Together with Cheryl Dance, he runs Al Ain Weekends, a social group that focuses on Culture and Heritage in the Al Ain area. They run excursions most weekends, not just in Al Ain, but often into Oman and other parts of the UAE as well. It operates on a donation basis, and is a wonderful way of getting to know the area more intimately.
* Visit Al Ain Weekends on Facebook or send them an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) to become part of their mailing list.