The three women finished their coffee, extinguished their cigarettes, flipped their veils over their faces and set off to continue shopping. I continued to savour my cardamom infused coffee and pondered the complexities of tobacco and traditional face coverings.
The food court where I sat, an air-conditioned refuge from the sauna of the souk, is located at the top of the Mahmal: a seven-storey high shopping mall built in the eighties. Unlike the concrete wasteland of Jeddah’s suburban modern malls, the Mahmal – housing an eclectic mix of: perfumers, fabric merchants, home ware stores and international clothing concessions - is situated in the heart of the balad, or old town. Due to its location the ground floor serves as a thoroughfare for the shoppers on their way to and from the traditional souk.
The souk throngs with pilgrims buying last minute gifts and souvenirs before departing to their home countries. As she has done for centuries, Jeddah still sees pilgrims arrive by ship – Richard Burton docked here in the 1850s disguised as an Indian Muslim intent on making the pilgrimage to Makkah – although these days the majority of the millions who visit the Kingdom annually do so by aeroplane. From February to the end of August 2011 five million people arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage which can be made at any time of the year apart from Hajj season) and a further three million arrived for the Hajj at the beginning of November.
A stroll in the souk reveals humanity in all its glorious diversity – representatives from every continent shoring up their memories with trinkets from the market stalls. West African men amble past identified by their regal, cotton boubous - crisp in spite of the wilting humidity, Iranian women dressed in chadors held at their chins, large groups of Malaysian and Indonesian women draped in white khimars hanging down to their hips - their nationality distinguished by fabric flags sewn onto their backs like spiritual scouts, Pakistanis in salwar kameez, the occasional sari and Filipinos browsing in the market at the end of their shifts, many of whom are representative of the large communities of expats from all over the world working in the city.
From wherever you hail, the souk has what you seek: brightly coloured ladies’ housedresses, gold, electrical goods, books, succulent dates of every imaginable variety, heady incense, Yemeni honey and luggage in which to transport it all home. The pilgrims’ countries of origin influence the type of goods they desire to buy: Turks and Iranians rarely stop to stroke the rugs on show; chances are they were manufactured in Iran or Turkey anyway. Pakistanis favour electrical goods: DVD players, laptops and the ephemera of the digital age. Libyans show an interest in everything, for the last forty years travel outside of Libya has been severely restricted so Umrah provides a chance to stock up on consumer goods.
The thrill of that last coveted bargain stifles the heat and drives the pilgrims from stall to stall in a race against the clock and the inevitable journey to the airport. Only the scrawny cats concede defeat against the suffocating heat as they sprawl on the streets panting the evening away.
Emily Coles has an education background in languages, including Spanish, Russian and Arabic, and has worked in librarianship and teaching. She has lived in Spain and Russia, and has travelled extensively around Eastern Europe. She has most recently come to appreciate that unexpected and exciting adventures do exist closer to home, and her current favourite travel destination is Wales.