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Evening at the Souk

A local encounter I’ll never forget.

Karen Parker

Saudi Arabia

Evening at the Souk.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

We arrived outside Nassif House just as the light was changing with the setting sun. Our guide, Dr Sami Nawar, was proud to be showing us the Old Balad Souk, now classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. The old house was built in 1872 and was residence for the Governor of Jeddah, Sheik Omar Effendi Nassif. Having been recently restored, it was now being used as a library housing over 16,000 old books and many relics from traditional Arab homes. It was cool and dark inside with an interesting mix of flourescent tubes emitting a false blueish light and old yellow lights in ornate glass lamps that were effective in taking you back in time to another era. There were so many rooms you could easily get lost, and the stairways were deep and wide so that camels could navigate them to bring building materials to the top of the building, where there was a charming open air room that the the family members would have gathered in to take tea and dates and discuss affairs.
From the roof top I was awestruck by the view out cross old Jeddah City as the sun was sinking into the horizon and casting a golden glow over the roof tops of the old adobe buildings. I felt a wonderful sense of belonging to this old world and experienced an overwhelming emotion that was unexpected, as the Maghrib Salah chorus (evening prayer) began to emanate from loud speakers on the turrets of many mosque, saturating the balmy evening air. The hypnotic wailing sounds took me away into a distant past of sand, Bedouin people, camels and tents, as if I had somehow been there before.
Down below in the tiny alleyways of the Souk as the call to prayer seeped through, men stopped what they were doing and, like robots, they drifted in the direction of the nearest mosque to participate in Maghrib Salah.You could tell a mosque by the pile of sandals lined up on the outside steps. After the prayer, business resumed once the men, in a trance, returned to their business.
That evening in the Souk was an experience that I will never forget. The atmosphere among bustle in the little streets lined with shops selling everything from junk to solid gold bars was unique and exciting, but I could see that the Western influences and the lack of understanding of archeological preservation were beginning to dilute the old world charm. I hope the opportunity to protect and preserve this area is not too little too late.


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