In all the Middle East countries we’ve been to – from Israel to Jordan to the UAE to Iran to Oman – a main attraction is always the souk. Historically souks were open-air markets that sprang up on the outskirts towns on trade routes where merchants stopped their caravans, coming and going intermittently. Eventually, souks became more permanent and structures were built to house them. Like a pop-up shop gone permanent.
With urban crawl over the years, souks were eventually absorbed within city boundaries and can now be found in the old cities of many Middle Eastern and North African countries, where they form the nucleus of social and economic life of a city.
I love markets. I get to see the way locals live, shop and eat. I hunt down a local market in every place we travel to. Graeme is often exasperated with me for this. He will only accompany me or agree to go if it is an unusual market so occasionally it’s a lonely business. Thankfully the Nizwa Souk with its Friday goat auction qualified. It starts at dawn and business is brisk and finished by 10am in time for Friday prayers. We dutifully arrived at 7:30 at the central circular stand under a tin roof where men in dishdashas, the flowing robes worn by Omani men, were gathered.
The traders parade the goats around the stand, where prospective buyers are afforded a prime view and prime groping rights. Once a buyer satisfied, a bid is yelled out, negotiation ensues and the deal is eventually done.
I wondered aloud how much the goats usually go for. “65 rials for this one!” a seasoned buyer at my shoulder helpfully offered. About £120 at today’s rate. “Look for the ones with shiny coats and good legs. For the boy goats, you must squeeze their boy parts to see if they can make babies”, he added, grinning bashfully. I laughed and thanked him for Goat Buying 101.
Besides the usual fruit, veg, spices and homewares on offer, there was gun market. Plenty of inspecting, cocking and aiming into the air going on. This was the domain of men, unlike the goat market, where a number of Bedu women were buying. Rifles are sold for decorative purposes only, ammunition can only be purchased with a government permit.
Sadly, gone are the ways of living described by Thesiger in Arabian Sands. Most villages in Oman are connected by good roads and highways, on the electricity grid and the government trucks water from one of its four massive desalination plants on a regular basis. The country is amazingly safe, stable and welcoming. Oman seems to have achieved an equilibrium between its ancient Bedouin culture, its rapid oil-funded development, and its influx of foreign workers.
Perhaps Oman’s ability to blend the modern and the traditional and to welcome outsiders is owing to its relatively equal distribution of wealth among city and rural dwellers, its tolerant brand of Islam – Ibadism – and its long history of foreign contact due to its position as a trade centre. Chinese goods flood the Muttrah Souk in Muscat, breakfast buffets lay out French cheese. This modernism is embraced in totality and naively I hadn’t expected to see it here.
Nevertheless I was glad to find that in Nizwa, some traditions have endured.