Quick, before the weather heats up, take the opportunity to have a wander around Sharjah’s souks. There are a load of totally unique sights to explore!
Souk shopping is a completely different world to the homogeneous marble halls and piped music of the malls. These are bustling areas where shopkeepers call out for trade and haggle like desperate men, where waving hands and jangling goods dangling from rafters are the norm. The lights, sights and smells of the souks are full-on, a huge range of goods on offer everywhere and prices that start at the roof and come down reluctantly as part of an age-old performance which requires considerable skill if you’re going to take on men who have a lifetime’s experience at it.
Wander the souks of Sharjah and find a different world where life is so much more interesting than that mall and its carbon copy shops the same as the next mall.
Along the corniche between the fish and vegetable markets (themselves worth a wander!) and the Radisson Blue, you’ll find not only the restored ‘Heart of Sharjah’, but the fascinating human geography of the ‘Irani Souk’, formerly the dhow wharfage before shipping was moved over the creek to the port side. It was here Iranian traders would tie up their dhows and sell their wares – herbs, spices, melamine and aluminium cooking utensils, plates and pots and, well, just about everything, really.
Over the years, these traders gradually became enshrined as shops in the souk facing the water and even today, you’ll find businesses with very Iranian names on the shop fronts selling much the same mixture of cheap plastic goods, herbs, spices and medicines and poor, charcoal, hay, household goods made of barasti matting, perfumes, incense and medicinal herbs and preparations. It’s still a bewildering array of strange things to explore, best enjoyed in the aftermath of sunset.
Behind this area, you’ll find the Perfume Souk
A series of connected streets behind ‘bank street and the Corniche road packed with shops selling incense, including frankincense, myrrh, oud and bukhoor as well as traditional and commercial modern perfumes. Frankincense was traditionally burned to cleanse rooms and clothes alike, as well as an incense in churches; its name means ‘true’ or ‘noble’ incense. Oud is a great rarity, traditionally burned in Emirati households to waft through the clothes or used as a pure oil or in perfumes. It is derived from a disease infecting the agarwood tree and fetches astronomical prices in the range of tens of thousands of dirhams a kilo. A ‘tola’ or ten gram weight makes an interesting and more affordable gift to take home, though! Bukhoor is another old incense with a long history in the emirates, these compacted pucks of scented ingredients are burned, as is oud, on a mubkhar, a traditional burner, using charcoal to release the smoky scent. Many emirati families have their own ‘secret recipe’ for bukhoor and there is a bewildering variety to be found in the souk but also in supermarkets.
The Souk Al Markazi, or ‘Blue Souk’, is one of Sharjah’s most distinctive landmarks and something of an award-winning architectural marvel. It’s just off Al Arouba Street, opposite ‘Smile You’re In Sharjah’ roundabout and has two sides connected by bridges which themselves are lined with shops. The right side as you face the souk from Arouba Street is the ‘gold souk’ and the left side the ‘cloth souk’ but that’s not a hard and fast rule.
Upstairs on both sides you’ll find shops packed with ‘antiques’, all sorts of bric-a-brac and curious are heaped on every surface in these shops, tassled lamps hang from the ceilings, masks peer from the walls, soapstone chess sets rub shoulders with khanjars – traditional Arab daggers – and display boxes of exotic insects and ‘seven sands of the Emirates’.
Buyer beware here, there are relatively few ‘genuine’ antiques on offer and you need to be ready to haggle with some of the world’s most practised hagglers, start in at half the asking price or even a third and be ready to employ the whole gamut of haggling behaviours, because you’re about to battle like Hemingway’s Old Man of the Sea to get that interesting-looking ship’s compass for a reasonable price. This, of course, is half the fun.
There are also a number of shops in the Blue Souk selling killims (beware Pakistani rugs masquerading as Iranian, and do know what you’re doing if you’re going for a ‘high end’ buy) and dhurries (often great value and incredibly hard wearing), as well as everything from exotic-looking lingerie to belly dancer’s tassles.
The Gold Souk is to be found on Al Wahda Street, on the corner of what used to be ‘Safestway Roundabout’, now facing Al Manama Supermarket. Although the Souk Al Markazi is packed with gold shops, the Gold Souk is home to many of the higher end shops. Gold, often 18 or 22 karat, is sold at the day’s prevailing price by weight plus a ‘making charge’ and haggling is, once more, a must. Gold is used by a number of communities in the UAE, particularly by those from India, as a ‘store of value’ and a hedge against economic uncertainty, which makes the UAE one of the world’s leading gold markets. Generally, you’ll get the best prices from Sharjah’s gold souks and many vendors will happily make pieces for you to order, using a photo or design to work from. The quality is generally excellent.
Worth a wander, the Al Ghuwair market is packed with shops selling everything from toys to textiles, a dazzling array of the useful and useless, depending on your budget and need. Beyond it you’ll find the hardware souk, which sits in the area between the Al Zahra Hospital and Al Arouba Street, Here you’ll find everything from lighting and electrical accessories to heavy lifting tackle and sanitary ware, curtain and carpet shops as well as all sorts of tools and other hardware. This whole area is packed with a myriad of stores selling electronics, cloth and textiles and toys as well as traditional hardware.
The old fish and vegetable markets have now been consolidated in the new Souk Al Jubail, where you can buy fresh fish, vegetables and meat. A modernised, more hygenic take on the traditional old souks, which used to display fish in open air stalls which tended to bask in the sunshine, the Souk Al Jubail is a head-on trip into a world of dizzying choice, with a world of fresh produce laid out by the stallholders, who’ll call you over on the slightest sign of hesitancy or interest on your part. Once again, a good head for haggling is no bad thing. An early morning visit will secure achingly fresh fish drawn from the Gulf’s fisheries, from delicate fish such as safi, or rabbit-fish through the local favourite, the heavy-fleshed hammour, to fat, juicy prawns and Omani lobster.
Situated along the road opposite the Souq Al Jubail, the plant souk is a long line of stalls selling a variety of indoor and outdoor plants, from delicate peonies through to palm trees. Here you’ll find avenues of mouldy-smelling soil littered with pots of saplings, trees, cactuses and succulents as well as Arabian scented favourites such as jasmine (the ‘Iranian’ jasmine being the most fragrant), gardenia and frangipani, all planted to cast their rich scents into the humid night air. Bouganvillea and oleander are also favourites. They’ll sell you the plants, the potting soil, the clay pots (note unglazed pots won’t last long outside) and even the sand.
As always, it takes a few visits to the various stalls to find out what’s on offer before going back and having a good old haggle to get the price you want.