Ramadan nights in Mubarakiya Market are all hustle and bustle as visitors shop for dates, sweets, fresh fruits and vegetables, festive clothes, and other traditional items in a setting where time seems to have managed to at least slow down, if not stand still.
The old souk has always been the heart and soul of Kuwait and it embodies some of Kuwait’s best attributes: traditional Arab hospitality, a cosmopolitan society, and a very personal way of doing business in an unhurried atmosphere. With most shops and restaurants open until midnight during Ramadan, the souk comes to life at night with many visitors nostalgic for a taste of the past.
Parking can be a problem later in the evening but you can usually find a space in the multi-story parking garage beside Gulf Bank headquarters. Turn right after you exit the garage and you’ll see some cafes and restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating.
After a long day of fasting, visitors indulge in Kuwaiti specialties served with hot, fresh flatbread followed by cardamom-flavored tea with milk and traditional sweets. Just after the restaurants you’ll see Souk Al Dakhili on your right and Souk Al Tajjar, festively decorated with strings of lights and illuminated crescent moons and stars, on your left. Recently restored in the traditional style, these were once the two main thoroughfares through the heart of old Kuwait town.
Continue across the street and you’ll head into the bustling alleys that house the date market, the fruit and vegetable market, the meat and the fish market, which you can usually smell before you see it. Like all Middle Eastern souks, Mubarakiya Market was traditionally divided into different areas selling specific items. These divisions still exist today but they are interspersed with random shops selling cheap and cheerful made-in-China items, Kashmiri shawls, clothing, souvenirs, and footwear. One of the oldest sections of the souk is Souk Tamar, the date market. In Ramadan the shops selling piles of sweet, sticky fruit do a thriving business.
The date is the first piece of food eaten by Muslims when breaking the fast, a tradition that originated with Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) himself. Today, physicians point out that the body benefits from the date’s high level of natural sugars.
These sugars are converted into energy more quickly than any other nutrient and thus help relieve the fatigue felt at the end of the fast. The date vendors are friendly, helpful, and willing to explain about the many different types of dates. They’re also very generous with their free samples, allowing you to taste the different varieties. Up until a few years ago, Souk Tamar was enlivened by the animated presence of Kuwaiti dry goods merchant Ali Al Ajeel.
He had a small shop crowded with bins and big burlap sacks full of dried peppers, garlic, chick peas, lentils, beans, corn fl our, cracked wheat, and other food staples.
Tiny staccana cups of strong black tea and stories about the old days were generously dispensed by the gregarious merchant who worked in the souk for more than half a century. Mr Ali used to enjoy reminiscing about the Ramadan of his youth, before the existence of supermarkets, when Mubarakiya Market was the only place to shop. The souk was always bustling with shoppers stocking up on supplies for the night time feasts that follow the days of fasting. Particularly popular dry goods in his shop were corn fl our and cracked wheat.
The former is used to make muhallabiya, a fragrant rose water and cardamom fl avored pudding, and the latter is the main ingredient in harees, a very ancient Arabian dish always eaten in Ramadan. Harees is a porridge made of meat, cracked wheat, and dehen adani, sheep tail fat, that’s seasoned and garnished with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Ramadan has always been a time of generosity and in Mr Ali’s childhood home, an enormous pot of harees was made every Thursday and dishes were filled and distributed to the families in the neighborhood. Souk Tamar has never been the same since Ali Al Ajeel passed away some years ago. His shop was demolished and replaced by a restaurant that sells French fries.
On the bright side, while shopping habits and life in general has changed drastically over the years, the food and many of the customs of Ramadan, like sending plates of special food to neighbors, still remain constant. Exiting Souk Tamar and entering the fruit and vegetable market, the vendors there are also doing a brisk trade, particularly those selling huge piles of okra.
Many shoppers are buying this glutinous green vegetable to make marag bamia, a tasty stew with meat and tomatoes that’s popular in Ramadan. About halfway down the lane, on the left side, is a shop with baskets, mats, and other items all made of woven palm fronds and traditionally used in Kuwaiti homes. Once made locally, these handcrafted wares are now imported from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. At the back of the shop sits the owner, a distinguished Kuwaiti gentleman who points out piles of small baskets that can be filled with sweets and used for Girgian, a holiday celebrated by children on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth nights of Ramadan.
Business is good in Ramadan, he acknowledges, as children and their parents stop to examine the eye-catching baskets. In many small shops behind and near the fruit and vegetable market hang ornate outfits especially designed for children to wear for Girgian. For little boys there are fancy dishdashas with matching caps and vests. For girls there are dresses in every color of the rainbow, adorned with embroidery, tassels, sequins, pearls, and other embellishments. Matching bags are used by the children to collect sweets and nuts when they go door to door during the holiday, singing special Girgian songs.
A girl and her mother are spending a long time carefully inspecting the dresses and it looks like they are spoiled for choice. “We’re not sure yet whether my daughter will be going door to door with her friends or if she’ll be attending a Girgian party, but we want to be prepared in any case,” the mother says. As the hour grows later the souk becomes busier. Expat and Kuwaiti families are out in force, enjoying the festive atmosphere. Ladies are browsing through racks of colorful dara’a, the traditional long dresses that have made a fashion comeback in recent years for Ramadan.
Young children are attracted to the toy stores, eyeing the things they can buy with the Eid money they’ll get at the end of Ramadan, should they not be able to convince their parents to get them what they want on the spot. Some shoppers look at the displays of household goods in Souk Al Tenaka, the tin market. Enamelled tea pots hang in colorful cascades and brass Arabian coffee pots, trays, bowls, and mortars and pestles shine in the illumination of suspended light bulbs.
The smell of meat kebabs and grilled chicken is in the air as the traditional restaurants in the open square at the entrance to the fruit and vegetable market begin filling up with customers. Large water mister fans cool them off while they enjoy their suhoor, or late night Ramadan meal.
Other visitors head over to the trendy eateries in nearby SOMU. The name stands for South Mubarakiya and is a take-off on Soho, New York. Most of these businesses are owned and run by creative young Kuwaitis who are breathing new life into the old souk in a continuation of the friendly, vibrant atmosphere that characterises Mubarakiya Market.
Story and photos by Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special to the Arab Times