10 Tips for Surviving a Souq

Souqs, or Arab outdoor marketplaces, are typically, but not always, crowded, busy and loud, harboring hundreds of aggressive shopkeepers trying to get you to buy their goods. Filled with locals and dotted with tourists, souqs are also full of energy, culturally revealing and photogenic.

Outside of Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar

Souq Waqif – Doha, Qatar

The first time I was in a souq, in Jerusalem, Israel in 2008, I was quite stressed out. This was due to the fact that I didn’t just go to a souq – I stayed in a souq. Almost all of the dozens of streets inside Jerusalem’s Old City are crammed with shops manned by Arab shopkeepers, so if you stay at a hotel or hostel in the Old City, you’re going to have a souq right outside your door. This can be a very cool experience if you’re accustomed to the Arab world and their inevitable marketplaces, but not exactly so desirable if you’re a newbie, as I was when I unwittingly threw myself into the middle of it all.

Still I ended up learning to love the action and actually missed it when I left Jerusalem’s Old City nine days after I arrived. Having since visited other souqs in Arab areas of Israel as well as in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan, I do believe I’ve developed a good grasp of how to handle them. Here’s some advice to get you through your souq experience, should you travel to the Middle East.

1. Don’t buy during your first visit – This could be your financial and emotional undoing. Visit a souq well in advance of when you’re going to want to buy so you can get the feel for its people, its layout and its goods for sale. You can go back later after you’ve gotten used to the probable hassling, with a clearer head and a good idea of how to handle it.

Jerusalem's Old City souq

Old City Souq – Jerusalem, Israel

2. Practice – Since you’ve already decided you’re not going to buy on your first visit (haven’t you?) practice your haggling techniques on someone from whom you have no intention of buying. The shopkeepers are likely accustomed to experiencing dozens of failed sales attempts each day so you won’t be hurting them and you can get some valuable experience.

3. Learn a little bit of the local language – Learn how to say things like how much, too much, as well as numbers from one to ten. You may not be able to discuss price in the native language with these few numbers, but you will be able to tell the shopkeeper how many of the item you’re interested in you want, and your little bit of local lingo will go a long way in softening shopkeepers’ financial stances.

4. Dress modestly – In some areas in the Middle East, like Israel, the locals are accustomed to foreigners, and seeing uncovered arms and legs doesn’t much faze them. In most parts, though, you will be stared at – not necessarily leering stares, often just curious – if not properly covered. Make sure your legs are covered below the knee and your arms below the elbow to avoid harrassment and stares.

Bab el-Bahrain souk in Manama, Bahrain

Bab el-Bahrain souk – Manama, Bahrain

5. Don’t flash money around – Keep large bills in a zippered or hidden area of your purse, wallet or backpack and keep only smaller bills closer on hand. If you’re wanting to purchase something and the shopkeepers see big bills, the price of the item you’re interested in could rise in a second. If you have to reach in to get one of your larger bills, do so very discretely.

6. Don’t be shy – Shopkeepers in souqs are largely perfectly friendly, safe people. They may be aggressive sometimes, but this is just because they need to make a sale.

7. Show confidence – Try not to look intimidated or confused by the chaos of the souq and you might be in a better bargaining position.

Boy in Khan el-Khali Souq, Cairo

Khan el-Khalili Souq – Cairo, Egypt

8. Take a break – If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, find your way out of the souq and go back later.

9. Forget the map – If you’re ever given a map of a souq, toss it. Small or large, souks are usually unsigned and chaotic, and a map isn’t going to help.

10. Take a friend – Two heads think better than one, and a souq is one place you might need two (figurative) heads.

Little men in dishdashas and women in abayas and burquas as salt and pepper shakers at Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar

Comical salt and pepper shakers – Souq Waqif – Doha, Qatar

10 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Doc Wends says:

    This is one I will take note when I get the chance to be in a souq. I wanna just go there to take more snapshots for my blog and then immerse myself into it.

    Thanks for this post and surely, like you too, il survive. :)

  2. Sabina says:

    Hi, Doc – I too am sure you will survive a souq quite nicely :)

  3. Great tips! I never thought of most of it, but I guess it’s because I only went to the Jerusalem one for a short amount of time and in times that weren’t hectic, and I was more interested in photographing than in buying. I didn’t know it was called a souq, though, or that it was something that takes place in Arab countries, I just knew it as part of Old Jerusalem. Though I did learn there (from a friend) that you’re expected to bargain and the sellers will usually lower the price if it’s either that or losing the deal (I guess it’s to a point, I only tried once).

  4. Erik says:

    For my time in Jerusalem, I stayed in a hotel right in the heart of the souq. It was both exhilarating and overwhelming, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I still do not have the hang of bargaining, but I don’t think I got totally ripped off, as I was able to do it well enough to always get the original quoted price cut by 75-90% :-)
    Erik recently posted..Photo of the Day- Alcatraz, San Francisco, CaliforniaMy Profile

  5. Steve says:

    I love the tips you have here. While I’ve never been to a souq before (at least not one a traiditional one in an Arab country), I’ve been to several open air markets in Asia. I have to say that getting used to haggling is important. You should always try to negotiate the price at least a little bit. I think getting used to the constant attention (which sometimes borders on harrassment) is important too. That was hard for me to get used to, but you need to get over it in order to have any fun.

    I’d like to add a general rule to your list: have fun. Markets like these can be a lot of fun even for people who don’t like shopping like me. You can meet a lot of interesting people in places like these and you can even come away with a great souvenir.
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  6. Sabina says:

    Thanks, Ayelet. Oh, yes, there are souqs all over the Middle East. The Old City, souq, though, being my first, remains my favorite.

  7. Sabina says:

    Erik, I found it exhilerating and overwhelming as well. I also wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was strongly advised by a travel forum not to stay in the Old City, but was so, so glad I didn’t listen.

  8. Sabina says:

    Steve, having fun is an important rule, you’re right. If you take souqs and the Asian marketplaces too seriously you can become frustrated. Yes, haggling is a definite must and, like the souqs themselves, can actually be fun. I’ll look forward to hearing about your first Arab souq experience.

  9. Great tips, Sabina! I could have used them when visiting certain souks. I think I had big bills and looked overwhelmed the first time. Anyway, your advice is excellent!
    Lisa @chickybus recently posted..Capture the Color Contest Entry: 5 Travel Photos from Off the Beaten PathMy Profile

  10. Sabina says:

    Hi, Lisa. Thanks a lot. I could have used these tips too the first time I went to a souq ;)

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