Shopping, The Great Leveller

I originally published this article in Woman Today, January 2009.

Gatherings of women enveloped in black moved effortlessly along the corridors while children darted around their purposeful steps.  Men in white flowing robes and ghuttras clutched the handbags of their wives while they combed through the maze of ladies’ shops and shoe stores set in amongst Starbucks, Saks 5th Avenue, and Tiffany’s.  For me, images of life in the Middle East conjured up vast marketplaces and merchant stalls flush with clothes, jewelry, and artifacts; I hardly anticipated shopping at an upscale, western-style mall only two days after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Washington, DC in late 2000.  My husband, a Lebanese national, and I were barely acquainted with our new life abroad when a friendly work colleague offered to introduce us to the many mall shopping opportunities available in the capital.  I was initially skeptical; I had certainly seen my share of American malls, but this colleague assured me that mall shopping in Riyadh was a very unique experience.  The words “unique experience” piqued my interest.  As a naturally curious expatriate with a propensity towards indulging in new endeavors, I agreed, allowing our guide to lead us through a dizzying tour of some incredibly upscale, couture stores.

Villagio Mall (Doha, Qatar)

The ceaseless whirring of cash registers following us from store to store indicated that these shoppers could afford their extravagant acquisitions.  In the Kingdom, “mall shopping” takes its pattern from western models with endless square footage devoted to stores that offer a range of apparel, jewelry, shoes, housewares, and electronics or specialty products for the discriminating consumer.  In the U.S., the ubiquitous mall ranges from low cost to high-end stores or those that blend the two, providing offerings for nearly every socioeconomic group.

In 2004 we relocated to Doha where I was similarly astonished by the quantity of malls with their exquisite shops and recreational opportunities.  Young adults and children glided around the ice skating rink at City Center and families slid along in gondolas down the Venetian-style canal of Villagio Mall.  (Note: Villagio Mall was recently closed due to a tragic fire.)  An American expatriate, Katita, living in Doha shared her wonder at these spectacles:  “When my family and I first shopped at Landmark Mall, I was so surprised to see this beautiful mall with all of its western type stores with everything from Chanel perfume to Swatch watches.  My favorite was the supermarket at one end, which all the malls have. Talk about ‘One Stop Shopping.’

Katita Wilmot

On my assorted shopping jaunts, I myself have observed that mall expeditions in Qatar seem to offer socializing experiences similar to the U.S.  Young people frequent City Center, Villagio, and Landmark where they gather to fraternize and mingle much in the same way that American youths spend entire afternoons casually roaming the mall and meeting with friends.  However, in Doha local young men and women are segregated; likewise, only families are permitted in the malls of Riyadh, which curbs anxieties about loitering single men.

I quickly noticed that Qatar malls were more than spaces of commerce or places to enjoy leisure activities; they were locations where  women could revel in displaying their fine apparel and carefully styled hair and makeup.  Throngs of Arab women, a portion in beautifully adorned abayes, embroidered with fine, gold thread, meander in the corridors between stores, punctuating groups of western women wearing the latest couture styles.  It amused me to think of these women as living models, competing with the array of clothes and high fashion on display.

“The Pearl” in Doha provides abundant upscale shopping opportunities.

In America, the trek to the mall is treated less as a prized social outing or special occasion and more as a utilitarian activity; men and women hardly dress with formal intent, preferring instead to don comfortable jeans, shorts, or baseball caps and tennis shoes.   For U.S. citizens, mall outings are first and foremost consumer excursions: Americans are bombarded with an array of discount opportunities and urged to take advantage of these savings by using their credit cards or opening new charge accounts at any given store.  When my husband and I first arrived in Riyadh, I was stupefied at the reliance on cold, hard cash.  The credit cards we eagerly acquired through our employer remained unused in my purse and my husband’s wallet.  In America we had become conditioned to witnessing consumers using their VISA card to pay for a two dollar McDonald’s food order.  In Doha, the credit card we obtained upon arrival debited expenditures immediately from our bank account leaving us free from the financial shackles that unbridled reliance on credit can create.  What a novel concept for an American; buy only what you can afford!

Souk Al-Waqif (Doha, Qatar)

Souk-time!

The grandeur of many of the malls in the Arabian Peninsula initially left me nonplussed, incredulous over the seemingly unending supply of designer goods.  Shopping in western culture is closely associated with the woman as consumer, perpetuating the perception that all women love to wander the aisles, voraciously spending as they shuttle from shop to shop.  While I never fell into this stereotypical role, I did become particularly intrigued with the opportunity to expand my shopping experience and visit a traditional Arab souk.  Arab souks, I would find, were veritable hodgepodges of intricate alleys and pathways housing shops sitting shoulder to shoulder bursting with exotic wares.  Riyadh, known for its lavish malls, luxurious chandelier shops, and abundant fresh fish markets (due to the proximity of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf), is also noted for its teeming souks such as Bat-Ha, the Kuwaiti souk, and Dira, one of the oldest traditional souks in the city.

Tablahs (Arabic drums) at Souk ~ Doha, Qatar

Ouds (Arabic Guitars)

The tapestry of souk shopping is tightly interwoven with the art of bargaining, which is not only accepted, but widely expected.  On my inaugural visit to Dira, two venerable and wrinkled men bartered for ancient daggers and swords in a remote corner of the souk, leaving me rooted to the spot, unable to turn away for fear of missing a moment of these charged and fascinating negotiations. Similar scenes are common across the patchwork of shops, laden with fierce exchanges of fluttering arms and pitched voices between customer and vender who haggle over the cost of a pair of sandals or a sheesha pipe.  Bargaining is not purely a male prerogative; women regularly practice their gamesmanship at reducing the ante for several meters of silk fabric or intricately adorned handbags.  While I am commonly taken aback by the swift and heated dickering, my husband is quite proficient at the craft of bargaining; it must be either “in the blood” or honed by years of practice growing up in Lebanon and Jordan.  Bargaining is not typically an accepted practice in typical U.S. stores with their set inventories, fixed prices, and company budget constraints.  However, after living in the Middle East for the last eight years, we have found some success with bargaining in the U.S.  Just two summers ago, my husband and I visited Lowe’s home department store where we practiced our haggling skills to secure lower prices on garden furniture for our new home.  Surprisingly, I even recently found myself successfully bargaining at Hamad hospital in Doha for a lower price to acquire medical records.

Vegetable souk in Qatar.

Like Riyadh, Doha has a multitude of souks. Some contain a wide assortment of goods and others cater to a specific clientele, such as the gold souk, livestock souk, fish market, or computer souk.  The Al-Shabrah market, with its immeasurable quantities of vegetables, fruits, and eclectic mix of people, takes the concept of a U.S. “farmer’s market” to another level. Al-Najmah is devoted primarily to household goods and hardware; it is informally reserved for men, making me feel a little like an intruder when my husband and I visit.  As a newcomer to Doha, I was excited to experience Souk Al-Waqif, “the new, old souk,” a mass of shops brimming with nearly every good imaginable.  The scent of incense infiltrates the winding alleyways, and the crush of women and their children in tow makes for a frenetic and spirited atmosphere.  Older men in turbans expertly propel wheelbarrows in the narrow channels of the souk, and the doughy smell of cardboard thin saj bread wafts around you as it sizzles on large flat half-dome heating elements suspended over wood blocks.  Scattered amongst the hearty chaos are Arab men of all ages sitting on plastic chairs in small alleys; plumes of smoke rising from their sheesha pipes as they sip aromatic cardamom coffee and mint tea, conversing with one another about the day’s events.

Ros Cutts

“I eagerly looked forward to my first experience of souk shopping, and it did not disappoint me,” remarked a British expatriate friend, Ros, of her first souk experience. “Wandering around the slender passageways of Souq Al-Waqif I was introduced to the blended smell of spices, and stalls filled with rolls of colorful fabric waiting to be tailored into dresses and other garments. I was fascinated by the collection of falcons and falcon paraphernalia available in a small courtyard area.”  Ros continued, “Leaving with visions of Lawrence of Arabia I was somewhat startled to find western-style restaurants and coffee chains dotted in between the traditional craft stalls and Arabic-style restaurants.  It seems a shame to have not preserved the original architecture and to have allowed western food outlets to open in the souk.” She paused in retelling this and asked with a laugh, “Perhaps I’m just old fashioned?  In any case, I enjoyed my shopping experience at the souk and look forward to using my spices and returning to sample some of the delicious looking food from a traditional Arabic restaurant.”

On one of our initial trips to the Souk Al-Waqif I had been taking my time to saunter along the streets, exploring the varied vendors and their wares when I heard a throaty voice at my shoulder. “Marhaba, bedak chai aw qahwa?”  Realizing the voice did not belong to my husband, I turned to find a smiling old man, nodding his head vigorously and offering something in his map-creased hand.  I realized he was offering my husband and me mint tea.  I thought it odd at first, even mildly invasive, and I hesitated thinking that he was trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. However, I learned that this was customary and realized that this type of tradition made the souk experience unique, much more than simply an excursion.  Souks by nature, rhythm, and flow encourage its patrons to slow down and immerse themselves in a kind of cultural shopping rather than simply surrendering to the shopping culture as many do in U.S. malls and stores.

Pam Weissen

My Scottish expatriate friend, Pam, also expressed how she favored souk shopping:  “My children love and look forward to visiting the souks. They save up their pocket money and love to spend on Arabic souvenirs and have bought everything from camel ornaments, to perfume pots, to musical instruments!  The Arab shopkeepers are so warm and friendly especially to the children and whether they buy or just look, I find them patient and kind.  The boys also love a bit of a barter which is always in good spirit.  I also feel that my children are safe and we can walk around and truly relax without the worries of the West, i.e., uptight shopkeepers and the concern that someone will snatch our children.  In contrast, if  I look round and can’t find my youngest, no doubt some shopkeeper will be chatting with him, or as happened the other day, an old lady in a veil, seeing my anxiety, smiled and pointed to another shop to let me know that he was there – a really nice gesture.”

Living in the Middle East has afforded me the freedom and singular opportunity to not only shop for the practical new dress at the mall, but to also “shop” for new experiences at the souk.  Happily, I am never a disappointed consumer in either place.

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4 comments on “Shopping, The Great Leveller

  1. I found your leave a comment button. It is fantastic. The villagio mall picture and the CONCEPT. i wasnt to go saliling in the mall. And in a boat. Maybe it appears like a venice thing and it may not be some great deal but…. I , it , just, Sailing in a mall.

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed my post! . . . I agree, the idea of sailing on a gondola along a canal in a mall is intriguing. I have not set sail in the mall either, but I had a cousin visiting last year who was able to do so, and she loved it!

  2. The shopping malls of Riyadh, Doha and Qatar really seem like a unique experience. I like you observations and how you describe the difference between the cultures. In the end – not being much of a mall-person so to speak – I would prefer the souks, which for me always will be more alive.

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