Trip to the Blue Souk … and a Surprise

April 17th, 2011


About once a month I like to go to Sharjah to remind myself that I actually live in an Arab country. Sharjah is the emirate north of Dubai and more conservative. Alcohol, sheesha and skimpy clothing are all forbidden.

My favorite place in Sharjah is the Blue Souk. Arabs call it Souk Islamia (Islamic Souk). To confuse you further, the sign outside reads “Central Souk.”

Last Friday, we headed for it, but stopped on the way to eat falafel sandwiches at Kalha—to fuel up for the serious shopping ahead. This trip wasn’t for random purchases. We had an important mission at hand!

The Blue Souk

Located on the Corniche of the Buheirah (the big lake), the Blue Souk is two long buildings that look a bit like a train station. There’s a picture of it on the UAE five-dirham note.

The souk has two stories. The ground floor is mostly filled with Arabic clothing. The upper floor holds the goodies—carpets from Iran, Kashmiri textiles, silver Bedouin jewelry, and all types of bric-a-brac from the region and beyond. The place calls for serious bargaining. Whatever they ask for, start the bargaining at half the asking-price—but always with a smile. 

Upstairs, we entered only one shop. The sign said, “antiques” which translates as, “old and tarnished.” Our family traipsed in and began to poke around.

We bought several pieces of “antique” Afghani jewelry. I also chose a silver Mongolian box with Kufic Arabic calligraphy. I had never seen anything like it, so naturally I had to have it.

While my nine-year-old son tried out the swords for sale, I saw some spoons—antique silver spoons from Russia. I earnestly asked their prices—about $80 each. Hmmm. At this point, my husband began sighing and rolling his eyes. It was time to leave the shop.

A Surprise

Anyway, silver trinkets were not what we came for. Our mission was on the ground floor; we came to buy clothing to wear to Saudi Arabia. The day before my family got Umrah visas to visit Mecca and Medina. In case you don’t know, Umrah is the “small pilgrimage”—versus Hajj, the big pilgrimage.

This upcoming trip was a surprise to me, as I hadn’t expected the visas to come through (not with the two huge Israeli stamps in Husband’s passport.) Thankfully, the Saudis hadn’t noticed—or they chose to overlook them.

So—like any trip—we needed the right clothes. According to Saudi law, I must wear the abaya. For good measure, I decided to get two. We also wanted an abaya for our daughter. Even though she’s still a child, at 12, she’s tall and it couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, my husband and boys wanted kanduras, the standard garment of the Gulf Arab Male.

Honestly, I’m not sure why they needed this. Men have a special wrap for performing Umrah and Hajj. The kandura is not required, nor is it the traditional dress of my husband. Perhaps they didn’t want to be left out. Or maybe—the clothing will help our family “blend.”

And so, we went from stop to shop, trying on and selecting our attire. I bought two abaya with black-on-black embroidery and matching shayla (scarf). Meanwhile, my daughter, who had been rather hesitant about the whole thing, perked up when she found an abaya with blue Swarovski crystal trim (of course, twice as expensive as mine).

Meanwhile, our sixteen-year-old son wasn’t with us. He didn’t want a common off-the-rack kandura. He had insisted on a custom-tailored kandura made of special fabric. (Kids these days!)

Back to Umrah: I’m feeling excited and a little bit nervous. What to bring?! How to prepare?! What to expect?! We are booked to travel to Mecca, Medina and Jeddah. (God-willing, we’ll be earning hassanat blessings, as well as Marriott points.)

If you’ve made Umrah, please share with me your “Top Tip.” I would gladly welcome it. Also, share any comments you may have about the Blue Souk or anything mentioned here. Shukran.

Bye for now & Salaam.

  1. April 17th, 2011 at 13:08 | #1

    Wow Ummrah, fantastic. Enjoy! We really had a great time when we did it and it’s perfect weather still.

  2. April 17th, 2011 at 13:30 | #2

    Wow big trip! Saudi Arabia is one place I’ve never really wanted to go – something about it is very intimidating and frightening to me. I think I have a big mouth and am afraid I’ll say/do something that will find me in a Saudi jail. (haha)

  3. Rima
    April 17th, 2011 at 15:48 | #3

    You’re about to embark on a journey of a lifetime. People save for many years to take a trip like this. We had this talk with our kids:) I think we’ll come back with a different outlook on life, all the Umrah for Dummies tips and tricks are still jumping around in my mind…….let’s see!

  4. April 17th, 2011 at 16:08 | #4

    Facinating! I’ll be very much looking forward to your observations and feelings when you return. Enjoy that abaya.

  5. Lainey
    April 18th, 2011 at 05:34 | #5

    Blessings and Marriott points. What could be better?

  6. Andrea
    April 18th, 2011 at 21:17 | #6

    I learned in Jordan that most people just throw away old things that they don’t want anymore. The shortage of “antiques” doesn’t stop the clever vendor, however. A shopper can find lots of “antiques” downtown or at the tourist spots that are actually “new” items made a bit shoddily, then rusted and banged up to look old! Caveat emptor!

    Word of advise for your Umrah trip: I’ve heard that lots of the men don’t wear undergarments under their wraps. Keep your eyes directed down or you may be privy to someone’s privates!

  7. April 19th, 2011 at 03:41 | #7

    Thanks for the comments and encouraging words. I’m hoping for an amazing trip where I don’t lose my children or get my phone confiscated or have trouble with the Saudi mutawa or get flashed! Stay tuned.

  8. April 19th, 2011 at 12:03 | #8

    This is a trip that will resonate with you forever I am sure. I sobbed, as soon as I walked in. It is an ethereal place especially at dawn when we went. My favorite aspects: ritual of hair cutting when the husband or male family member cuts a strand of hair from his wife’s, the walk between Safwa and Marwa. (I have to say I never even noticed what the men were wearing apart from the obvious off the shoulder white toga style wrap.) My advice is to go for the Fajr prayer or late night, less crowds, cooler and more spiritual experience. Also your Sheila will slip so i suggest a special outfit which is available there, esp. for your daughter. It has a wide easy to wear head cover,lighter material and definitely better for navigating and/or praying. Wish you a Umrah Magbulla Inshallah:)

  9. April 19th, 2011 at 18:01 | #9

    Thanks, Zvezdana, for your uplifting Umrah tips. Your words are putting me in the right frame of mind. I will tell you how it goes…

  10. Deborah Mustafa
    April 26th, 2011 at 07:33 | #10

    Salaam Holly,

    Not sure, but as I write this you may have or may be performing Umrah. Sorry I am a bit late.
    But yes, you are embarking on an amazing journey that will be one you never forget, for sure.

    Alhamdullilah, I have been blessed with making two Umrahs. I suggest from my experience, if it is not too late-save the abayas for out and about in KSA, and wear something more pracital for the ritual circling of the Kabaa and the other walking you will do between Marwa and Safa.
    I went to the Indo -Pak neighborhood in Jeddah and purshased a pure white (symbolic for me) cotton Sharwal -Khamese and wore a full hood hijab that had no possibility of slipping, over my head. I only knew to do this the second time around as the first time I wore shayla and abaya and the thing kept sliding off, resutling in being accosted twice by the lady police -ruining my deepest desire to have a beautiful and serene experience.

    On enetering the Haram, make a welcoming prayer, you will find it breathtaking and like Zvezdana suggested, go at fajr. I also suggest you go at Maghreb and stay for both Maghreb and Isha prayers as the temp is cooler and the nighttime is so magical.

    But the magic doesn’t stop in Mecca. you MUST make the 5 hour drive to Medina, where, I truly believe the most amazingly melodic and beautiful adhans are recited in the world. I vividly remember Medina being beautiful, the people were wonderfully friendly, the air friesh and the countryside mountainous and green. The Masjid Al Nabi-or the Phrophet’s Mosque is also exquisite. Again, I wish you many blessings on this trip, and may you return with renewed spirit glowing with thh light of Allah. XO Salaam Deborah

  11. Hana
    May 24th, 2011 at 12:43 | #11

    Dear Holly,
    Hope you had a blessed time in Umrah and may Allah accepts all your deads and blesses you.

    I enjoyed reading your posts , reflecting on your writings .. You are such a positive soul .. Echoing such a fresh perspective on local matters ..
    Glad to have reached to ur blogs..
    Best regards

    Hana lootah

  12. Holly
    May 24th, 2011 at 18:04 | #12

    Dear Hana, Thank you for your kind comment. I did have a blessed umrah, but it was not what I expected! I wrote a post about it if you’d like to hear the details… Thanks for reading my blog. 🙂

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