Like the fragrant alleys of Al Hamidiyeh in Damascus, the old souq of Abu Dhabi seemed almost as ancient as the city itself. Unlike the great Ottoman vaults of Syria’s most celebrated marketplace, though, its counterpart on the Arabian Gulf was little more than a motley collection of shabby concrete boxes dating to the 1970s.
It succumbed to the wrecking ball barely three years ago, missed rather than mourned by those who hunted for bargains there. The souq had been built on the orders of Sheikh Zayed and replaced an even older marketplace close by; a rough and ready collection of barristi stalls between the beach and Al Hosn fort when Abu Dhabi was just a fishing village.
Jonathan Raban, the British novelist and travel writer, visited the old souq in the late 1970s and found “repairers of sandals and transistor radios, tailors sitting cross-legged in front of ancient Singer sewing machines, hawkers of junk and plastic carpets”.
The experience left Raban distinctly underwhelmed. It was, he wrote, “a shopping precinct of purple concrete which looked as if it might be altogether more at home in Basildon or Levittown. Its pedestrian streets were too wide and windy. It had lost all the intricacy of a real souq.”
Others have been kinder. Admitting that it had developed a “slightly shabby appearance”, Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor of architecture at UAE University, noted on the Alrroya website this year that “it was popular with city residents. And while dominated by South Asians, the souq was also visited by locals, Arabs, westerners and also tourists who thought of its spaces and walkways as a representation of an authentic Arabian souq.”
In the mean time, those in search of authenticity have been directed to the Iranian souq at the Mina Port. Its collection of household utensils, hand-forged barbecues and intriguing cooking implements creates the right atmosphere, but a visit is all too swiftly concluded, even with side trips to the adjacent plant souq and nearby carpet souq.
Now, though, Abu Dhabi has a new souq, lurking at the foot of twin massive concrete and steel spikes that the developer, Aldar, have called the Trust and Domain Towers.
While all eyes turn skywards at these incomplete giants, the souq is now in business; glimpsed first at the Corniche end of Old Airport Road, a brown lattice wall several stories tall with no obvious external clues as to its purpose.
A right turn, then another, brings you to several floors of subterranean parking, hardly authentic, but a welcome relief amid the congestion of downtown. Inside the building is dark and cool, the walls pierced by light both natural and artificial. There is a central square with a tiled floor where the ceiling rises 12 metres above a quiet pool and gentle jets of water.
What is missing is the bustle and noise of an Arabian souq. At present, just a handful of shops and cafes are open for business, but with space for 250 units over three floors, the crowds are surely on their way. For the present, there is time and space to enjoy the architecture of the city’s newest addition at leisure.
The souq is already popular with locals, taking lunch at the new Shakespeare Cafe, along with Kitsch cupcakes, an import from Dubai. There is, surprisingly, a greengrocers, along with at least two shops selling sunglasses and another with a stock of flat screen televisions. Other attractions include a New Zealand ice cream parlour and a store that will encrust your mobile phone in crystals.
Many more will open by the end of the year. Nearly two dozen shops specialising in watches and jewellery, five clothing boutiques, perfumeries, a coffee roastery and a travel agent, to name just a few. By then, it will no longer be so easy to find a parking space.
What though, will the customers of the old souq make of the new? Will they even recognise it as such? Which raises the bigger question; what is a souq beyond the Arabic name for a commercial district? The question is particularly relevant in the UAE, where reinventing the souq has become a national pastime. Alongside such traditional bazaars like the Blue Souq in Sharjah or the spice souq of Dubai, there is the Madinat Souq at the Jumeirah waterfront and the Souq Al Bahar at the Dubai Mall. In Abu Dhabi there is the Qaryat Al Beri at the Shangri La Hotel.
Certain factors distinguish the new souqs. They are visually beautiful, designed to evoke fantasies of the Arabian nights that are exotic but nonthreatening. Many, if not most of the shops, are chains. They are air-conditioned and entirely enclosed from the harsh Gulf summer. A great number of their customers are tourists and expatriates. Some might call them shopping malls by another name.
Abu Dhabi’s new souq is part of a larger development called the Central Market, which will eventually include the Emporium, an unashamed high-end mall selling some of the most exclusive names in high fashion.
The souq, then, must offer another experience in the age of the supermarket and the department store. Abu Dhabi’s new souq is undoubtedly architecturally stunning. It is also intimate and atmospheric, if air conditioned.
What are the other tests? For the present, it smells a little too much of concrete dust and fresh paint, but down one alley, a plastic sheet covers bags of spices outside a shop front whose name offers a clue: Wadi Az’zaffran, or Saffron Valley. Pulling back the sheet exposes bags of dried black lemons, chillies and a blast of thyme. Almost opposite, coffee beans will soon be roasting. The aromas will come.
Surely, a souq must also offer the promise of a hard-fought bargain. Surprisingly, despite the price tags and the high street brands, the shop owners are open for a spot of haggling. The assistant at the Exquisite Antiques Gallery offers 10 per cent off his pashminas and painted elephants and 15 per cent of larger purchases. At Al Daman Mobile Phones, the most blinged-up case can be haggled down from Dh850 to Dh600.
Even Kitsch cupcakes is up for a bargain. On top of the two-dirham special opening offer, a little bit of pressure results in two mini cakes thrown in for free.
So the signs are good for Abu Dhabi’s new souq. At the exit, the car park attendant takes your ticket and compliments you on the colour of your car. He thanks you for shopping here and expresses a desire that you return soon.
Which is a reminder of one more thing that the visitor should take away from a true Arabian souq. Hospitality.