Souks trade on their resilience

Time sometimes has nothing over tradition. Take, for example, the souk, a type of Muslim market that has been a part of Islamic societies for centuries. Despite all of the changes in retail and shopping over the past few decades, this time-honored method of commerce has held its ground -- and even grown sometimes.

Abu Dhabi’s Central Souk, nestled in the city’s central business district, sits in a relatively new building in one of the oldest sites in the city. Some years ago, the London-based design firm Foster + Partners put in the marketplace to replace an area destroyed by fire. What visitors see is an elegant building making use of geometric and patterned cladding, and other architectural features that together create unique types of interplay for natural light. There are also glimpses of ancient cultural geometries in the wall panels and interior spaces of the building.

A guide from ArchitectureBoston lays out this building’s pedigree in more detail and shows shoppers making their way along this beautiful infrastructure, lying inland from a collection of islands that offers other modern shopping opportunities.

The market has beauty in its favor, but it is not without tough competition.

“As a shopping center, the Souk struggles against the larger Abu Dhabi Mall, with its ice rink and full collection of exclusive stores,” Mark Klopfer writes in the guide.

Competition, though, is not enough to keep good markets down. Abu Dhabi will soon add another souk, and a Gulf News report reveals that city planners are investing approximately $200 million to make it happen.

The site is between Al Maqta’a bridge and Khaleej Al Arabi Street and will feature organic fruit and vegetable vendors, shops selling fresh flowers, and arts and crafts stores. It will also employ “hamali,” porters with wagons who have traditionally provided transport in these cultural markets.
In addition, the building project includes housing, a hotel and public transit infrastructure.

For more on how a traditional souk works, the Gulf News Journal spoke with Fuad Al-Zubeiry, an imam in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“It's a big marketplace,” Al-Zubeiry said, describing something similar to an American farmers market, a many-segmented shopping experience often bustling with outdoor vendors offering all sorts of wares.

Al-Zubeiry said the character of each individual marketplace varies.

“It depends what you're selling,” Al-Zubeiry said.

He also said a traditional souk might operate only on certain days of the week or month.

As for restrictions under Islamic law, Al-Zubeiry said alcoholic drinks and pork products would generally not be sold. Beyond that, there's quite a diversity of goods that a traditional souk might offer.