Secrets of the Souq of East Jerusalem’s Old City
By Ray Hanania
(Archived, from 2009)
On a very windy day, they tell, you can stand at the entrance of the ancient Damascus Gate and hear the sinuous whisper of the wind as it rushes through the labyrinth of streets and alleys of the Souq, or Arab market that is the heart of the Old City East Jerusalem.
People swear the Souq has a spirit that beckons them to enter.
Yet inside are the more powerful souls, people who for generations have followed the same routine day in and day out, through peace and through conflict, through plague and through good fortune.
The 40 foot high Wall around the Old City with its ramparts and turrets shelters the Souq itself. It was built in 1538 by the Muslim conqueror Suleiman the Magnificent upon remnants of portions of the Wall that date back 2,000 years.
The streets of the Souq, made of large yellow stone smoothed by centuries of foot and cart traffic, reflect what may have been the original street plan from the 4th Century. At that time, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, both converts to Christianity, began building memorials to their new religion, including the first Church of the Holy Sepluchre in 335 A.D.
Today you make your way through the narrow passageways and shadowy alleys of this ancient marketplace usually through shoulder-to-shoulder throngs of tourists or city residents, retracing the steps of Jesus along the “Via Dolorosa’s” 14 Stations of the Cross, but more than likely shopping for souvenirs.
In the Souq, the only thing that is important to the 800 or so shop owners and vendors is to make the sale.
It’s the ultimate marketplace where junk and jewels pass from hand to hand, and where tradition is handed down from father to son, over and over again through the generations.
But like everything in life, there is even a system here. A tradition of haggling. No price is the real price or the final price or the wrong price. Anything can be bought or sold. In these shops are some of the most clever salesmen, and a few women, in the world.
And it is just that very experience of buying, haggling and negotiating a sale in the Souq that is the real prize. It is an unparalleled excitement fanned by the cacophony of powerful aromas from the Souq’s many spice shops, falafel, sandwich and coffee shops, tempered only by the stench of everyday human life.
Haggling and hard-edged bargaining stand between you and the many glittering silver, gold, Arab embroidery, mother-of-pearl and olive wood hand crafts that cover nearly every possible space in this seemingly never-ending labyrinth.
Patience is the key that unlocks the mysteries of the Souq’s narrow passageways and shadowy streets, its yellow and brown cobblestones smoothed by centuries of browsing.
The crenellated Damascus Gate is one of 11 entrances to the Old City, only seven are open. Steps lead down into the well of the crenellated Damascus Gate, or the outer plaza which, during the day is filled with seasonal vendors who carry and cart their wares, piling them high on crates, boxes, and on their shoulders and heads.
All of the gates require you to turn quickly 90 degrees, a strategy used by conquerors of the past to prevent other invaders from rushing into the old city on charging horseback. You quickly pass two money changers, and silver and goldsmiths. And then to the right into a cramped, open air boulevard of more shops and restaurants that continue down a slope of steps and stone ramps.
The air is filled with Arab crooners singing about lost love or about more recent expressions of pride in their religion, or, five times each day, the melodious call to prayer of the Muezzins from nearby Mosques.
Carts of fresh pomegranates, tomatoes, limes, lemons, dates, freshly baked bread and large balls of falafel, greet you in sight and overpowering smell. On a platform of crushed boxes, standing behind his peddlers cart filled with fresh vegetables, a vendor cries out “talata al-ashara,” or “three for ten” in Arabic. (10 Shekels, is worth about US $2.50.) Nearby men suck on the Hubbly Bubbly or Sheesha Pipes (Nargeelas in Arabic), which you can rent as you enjoy falafel sandwiches, chicken kabobs, various pastries and thick, bitter Arabian coffee. Nearby, you’ll hear the slapping of heavy chips on shesh besh boards (backgammon) and the arguments in Arabic over who has won.
At the bottom is a junction. To the left is El Wad (Valley) street and on the right is Khan el-Zeit, where centuries before vendors made olive oil from crushed olives. Khan el-Zeit slices through the old city, to the left is the Muslim Quarter. To the right is the Christian and then Armenian Quarters where the Souq spills out into mainly open air malls that offer much of the same. The street name changes and you soon find yourself in the Jewish Quarter with its more modern, fixed priced and elaborately decorated retail stores.
The store owners love to talk to you. It’s a part of the game of haggling and selling. They’ll probe to find out if you are Jewish tourists, Christian pilgrims, or visitors from any of hundreds of countries including Italy, Germany, France, Canada and the United States greeting you with a hello in each language until you respond.
And once you make eye contact, the sale begins, even if you don’t know you are about to buy something.
About 100 feet into the market is the shop of Said Talhami which features cloth, silver, brass and table clothes, dresses and religious icons including Mother-of-Pearl inlaid images of the Last Supper.
“We’ve had this shop for more than 60 years ago from my grandfather,” Talhami says in his own labored English.
“Because the business is so bad and the life tough in Jerusalem, we have to wait outside of the shop and talk to the customers friendly. And to let them come in. And to give them good quality. We be kind to them and give them the real price that will fit the mind. We don’t ask high prices to let our customers run from our shop.”
Nearly every store owner will invite you to have coffee.
“We invite them to drink coffee for free even if they buy or they don’t buy. We try not to let them go out because there are many shops. We have an eye. We feel if they want to buy or not. We bargain a little bit. But somebody don’t need to buy even if you ask them for free, they do not need to buy,” he explains.
“We live in a bad situation. They have closed a circle on us and no one from the West Bank can come into the city of Jerusalem.
About a quarter of the people who walk into a store will actually buy something.
Talhami concedes that 90 percent of the time when customers accept the coffee and drink with him, he will make a sale. So the offer of coffee is non-stop until you accept of walk out.
“But we don’t buy the coffee to push them to buy. But to make them feel at home. To be friendly. To make them feel we are human beings. We don’t make diamonds. We don’t make millionaires. We just survive.”
Jocko, who is in his early 30s, stands tall behind a decorated pyramid of spices and welcomes you down the path from Talhami’s shop. He gladly explains his own family history as he fills bags of spices for customers.
“My great grandfather worked here. My grand father. My father. And now me,” he says, wearing a Nike shirt.
He says most of his customers are Jerusalem residents or restaurant owners. Some tourists will buy spices like Saffron and za’atar, which is half of a morning breakfast meal for many Arabs. You dip freshly made flat Syrian bread cuts into olive oil and then into the za’atar which clings to the oil. It’s a very tasty morning meal for most.
Further down as the street approaches the Christian Section, about 150 feet from the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre plaza, is the embroidery store of Yasir (Ibn Diab ibn Abdul Rahman).
Yasir’s grandfather came from Hebron at the turn of the 20th Century and Yasir was born in the Jewish Quarter. Years ago although the quarters of the Old City were identified by religion, the people that lived in then were diverse. His shop features handmade embroidery from Bedouins, Druze, and that he hunts down during trips he makes each year to Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and even the Gaza Strip.
“Hello. I can help you. I’ve been here about 20 years. Three generations,” Yasir begins before one even asks.
“It’s a hard situation,” Yasir explains in a labored English. “Two three days, sometimes, we don’t make our first customer. If you take from me, you will be my first customer.”
Most business from tourists, although that is not so much. 300 Meters from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“Most of the tourists come with their leaders and they take them to certain shops and they won’t buy from us.”
One of the most creative greetings I had came at the Jaffa Gate when a store owner walked up to me with a piece of paper and pencil and asked if I would spell out “grand opening” for him in English so he could “make a sign announcing his new store.”
Once inside and I naively scribbled the words on the paper, the sell began and I realized the store owner was creatively playing the odds.
Tips to Experiencing the Best of the Souq
Inside the Souq, the price of an item is never the real price. The store owners expect you to counter with a price and begin the haggling. They will use every attitude to get you to up your offer.
If you offer too low, the vendor will shrug with a smile, “I can’t do that. Let’s not talk about the sale and just say hello,” one store owner said knowing that I would probably make a slightly better offer. “Pretend the talk of price never came up,” the store owner will say if my offer is still too low. “Let’s just be friends.”
The vendors will plead that you “will be my first sale. I need that lucky sale to begin my day.”
Once you say you accept a deal, the deal is a deal, but the store vendor is not finished.
He’ll offer you coffee and if you accept, you’ve just become a part of the Souq statistics. But that is okay to accept the coffee, because shopping in the Souq must be relaxing. Never go there if you are rushed for time. Plan on staying all day.
Almost every shopkeeper I met was a man, but none of them were rude and all were polite and respectful, even in response to an insulting price offer.
You get what you pay for. Chances are if you by it cheap, it is not a real antique.
Watch the store owner as he places himself between you in the store, and the door to leave. All of the stores are every narrow and for most Westerners, they are not rude enough to push themselves past the shop owner. They will move out of the way for you to leave, but you must persist.
And even when you pay, they will hold the money to bring you change and the time between taking the money and actually seeing the change can often last longer than the initial sale. The idea is for the store owner to keep in the store because even if you purchase something, they know you might purchase something else.
There is an honor among the store owners. They will do their best to encourage you to buy, but they will not steal from you. I’ve never heard of anyone being pick-pocketed, although I am sure it happens.
Don’t be afraid to enter the Souq and by all means take some time to enjoy a coffee, or stop at any of the small shops inside to order hummus dip, a falafel sandwich, pastries of refreshments.
You should explore the Souq on your own. There are many tourist books on the Old City but my favorite is “Jerusalem & the Holy Land” published by the London-based DK Publishing (Dorling Kindersley.) It’s worth the investment to get a good book.
The official tour guides will take you through the Souq mainly to experience the flea market atmosphere, but not to buy. They will take you to vendors with whom they are paid commissions to bring tourists. As you can imagine, the prices at these stores are usually fixed and haggling is discouraged.
Despite the headlines about the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs, a store owner will never speak unkindly of anyone. They will tell you things are rough, but as hard as you push, they will never tell you why. It’s bad for business.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist, author of 8 books and a standup comedian who uses humor to address conflict. Hanania’s family hails from Jerusalem. You can find interviews with store owners on his web page at http://www.hanania.com.)
(Photos by Ray Hanania)