by Fatma Athar
US $1 = Dhs. (Dirham) 3.67
“Madam, this is Dhs. 75, it’s hand-crafted,” explained the affable Pilipino lady as I tried on a silver ring with a flower motif and tiny aquamarine stones set on the petals of the flower.
Rose runs a kiosk, one of several scattered throughout Souk Al Arsah. She makes and sells jewelry — most of it silver with semi-precious stones.
“I learned the craft from a Yemeni man here. He also makes and sells,” smiled Rose. “We buy the stones from Yemen and Kuwait.”
Other than jewelry, Rose sells souvenirs such as magnets and glass pieces shaped as camels and famous buildings of Dubai. I bought a round, cornflower blue magnet picturing Burj Al Arab hotel for Dhs. 5. Similar magnets cost Dhs. 12-15 in Dubai.
Souk Al Arsah is Sharjah’s oldest market, renovated by the Sharjah government and converted into an indoor, air-conditioned souk for a smooth and comfortable shopping experience.
Not many people are familiar with Sharjah, sister city to the glitzy Dubai and third largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates. Boasting more than twenty museums and an array of souks, Sharjah lives up to the title bestowed on it in 1998 by UNESCO as the “cultural capital of the Arab world.”
The market’s architecture evokes the magic of the Arabian Nights. Gothic arches, wooden latticed balconies, oil lanterns hanging on walls, wooden shop doors and beamed ceiling, radiate old world charm.
I arrived at Souk Al Arsah 10 o’clock in the morning, when the place is mostly empty — smart since merchants bargain easily with fewer customers around. To attract customers, shopkeepers display some merchandise outside their shops.
An ethnic silver jewelry set with jade, citrine, turquoise, amber, and other colorful stones hung outside one shop, which also sells a variety of traditional daggers. Another sells local handicrafts like woven wall hangings, silver-plated mirrors, parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from the Quran, and multihued, painted electric and oil lanterns, some decorated with mosaic tiles.
Al Saeedi Bamboo Products sells hand-woven bamboo baskets flecked with orange diamond patterns, coasters, and place mats. Handmade silk carpets, paintings by local artists, and books on Islam are also sold in the souk.
I spotted a cotton tunic, embroidered in typical multicolored Kashmiri chain stitch, hanging outside a shop selling textiles from India. The rich velvet cushion covers, beaded and sequined pashmina shawls, and Benarsi silk table runners drew me in.
In all souks, bargaining is the rule, and I plunged right in. A fuchsia and mint green, 1m- by-1m velvet throw embellished with sequins, round mirrors, glass and wooden beads and tassels, cost Dhs. 60. Original price? Dhs. 125. Something similar would cost twice as much at a market in Dubai. I also bought a curved dagger with a wooden handle — the scabbard decorated with animal hide and engraved silver — reducing the price from Dhs 70 to Dhs 30.
Another kiosk operated by a bearded man had rosaries for the spiritually inclined, which sparkled as the sunlight hit them. Some are crafted here, while others are imported from different countries of the Gulf and Southeast Asia. He had a large selection — plastic, glass, wooden, and semi-precious stone rosaries, ranging from Dhs. 15 to some well over Dhs. 200. Some of the pricey ones included garnet beads, locally known as aqeeq.
The tantalizing aroma of hot coffee reached me as I made my way to the coffee shop, which sells an assortment of sandwiches and drinks.
As I later headed home I felt like Ali Baba from The Thousand and One Nights, gleefully emerging from the cave, arms laden with treasures.
When you go:
Location: Al Muraija, in the Heritage Area
Timings: 9 am – 1 pm and 4:30 pm – 8:30-10 pm
Some shops accept credit cards, but cash is preferred.
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