The experience of wandering a Middle-Eastern souk was a long time on my bucket list. These ancient places of commerce belong to a culture so different and so distant from my own, the colours of the silks and jewels, the drifting incense of spice mixed with perfume and the calls of the sellers so tenacious is grabbing your attention.
My first visit to a souk came in September 2016, during my visit to Dubai. The city’s old, more traditional souks are located in the Deira district of the city, also known as ‘Old Dubai’. The famous souks here include the Old Souk, the Spice Souk, the Perfume Souk and the world-famous Gold Souk. My day’s mission was to visit them all. I started in the Old Souk before crossing the creek on an abra (a small engine-powered wooden boat which the locals use to transport goods and people around the creek) to visit the remaining souks.
Someone who is not used to the souk experience may find it a little strange at first, because it can be so different to what they are used to. So, there are a few things to be aware of first.
- The Merchants’ methods
The first thing a visitor will notice upon entering the souk is the way in which the merchants will attempt to sell to you. They will not sit by their shop and idly wait for someone to take a wander in. There are so many merchants crammed in together, many selling similar products, that they will try their utmost to make their shop the one you visit.
It is not uncommon for them to walk a little way with you and try to strike a conversation with you. ‘Hello sir, I have just the product for you… my shop is just in there… I have many beautiful scarves’. They may walk in front of your, forcing you to acknowledge them (many people try to ignore them, which I tried to refrain from doing).
If you are adamant that you are not interested, then politely say no thank you and continue walking. They will soon take the hint. Sometimes, they will attempt to place a product they’re selling into your hands as you are walking. When in Dubai’s Old Souk, I saw a man place a scarf around a female visitor’s neck as she was walking along. In this case, just hand the product back and politely decline, whilst still walking.
I have to say that not once did I feel threatened, unsafe or frustrated by them. The way they sell is just different to the way we’re used to and all of the seller I met were friendly and welcoming. They are just persistent with it.
2. Take your time
It can get a little frustrating after a while having many items thrust in front of you, and having to decline a pair of sunglasses or a scarf a hundred times, but another tip is to take your time in the souks. There are so many small shops, all packed with interesting items, lined along the intricate maze of alleyways in the souks. Exploring them all can take some time, but you never know where you will see that perfect souvenir.
Also, take some time to immerse yourself in your surroundings. The souks are nothing if not atmospheric. Their sweet smells, assortment of sounds and mixture of colours is all part of the experience.
3. Take water and a hat
As with anywhere in the Middle-East, even in the winter months it can still be pretty hot. Even though the souks are usually covered by materials over the top to prevent the sun from directly shining in, they are not air-conditioned shopping malls. They are open air and can get quite warm so plenty of water is essential.
4. What to buy
The souks stock all kinds of things, from quality hand-made goods to the usual ‘tacky’ tourist souvenirs. For these souvenirs, the souks tend to be cheaper (and open to bartering) than many inner-city shops or those directly by tourist attractions. Therefore, the souks are a good place to get the souvenirs at a good price.
In Dubai’s souks in particular, there are all kinds of colourful scarves and shawls which make a popular purchase. The spice souk is the place to go for all of those weird and wonderful cooking ingredients and some jewellery can be found in the gold souk.
The best part about your purchase in the souk is the story you get with ir. You didn’t walk into a shop, pick up your souvenir and pay the set price to a cashier. You bartered for it, you interacted with a local and you’ll be able to tell friends and family the story of how you knocked the price down. The leads into the fifth and final point.
This is perhaps the best and most important point for getting the most out of your souk experience, and I decided to leave it until last. The souks are not normal stores. They are owned by the sellers and bartering with them directly for the best price is the norm. There is a technique for getting the best price, and I don’t think I did too badly in Dubai!
The first thing to bear in mind, is that they want to sell it far more than you want to buy it. You immediately have an advantage there. When you ask the merchant how much the item is, their answer will be a higher, inflated price. Come back to this with an offer of 40-50% of that price. For example, if a seller is telling me that the scarf I’m interested in is 100 Dirhams, I could come back with 40 Dirhams as a first try.
You should catch a balance between offering an insultingly low price, and starting off to high as to hamper your chances of a good price. As long as you don’t offer an insulting price, the chances are you will not offend them as it is just the way they do it. So, no need to be embarrassed. If they don’t want to sell it to you for that price, then they won’t. And remember, if they are not making a profit on it at your offered price, they won’t sell it. So no need to feel guilty about it either.
So, you’ve offered 40 Dirhams for the scarf. They will them come back around 80 Dirhams, to which you could retaliate with 50. Eventually, you will go as high as you feel is right, and the seller will be as low as they are making out they will go. The key phrase here is making out.
Eventually, they will make out that they are ‘as low as they can possibly go’. Cue what I like to call ‘the walk away’ tactic. When the seller gets to the point when they ‘absolutely’ cannot get any lower. Re-offer the offer one last time. When they still refuse, say ‘ah, shame. Ok then, bye’ and casually begin to walk off. 9 times out of 10, they will call you back and agree on the last price you offered.
For the record, this did not fail me once in Dubai. Remember, they want to sell more than you want to buy. If worse comes to worse, you could always walk back and agree on their lowest price if walking away does not work. But… I’m sure it will!
I hope this has helped you if you are planning a souk visit soon.
Comment below with your top souk tips!
Thanks and happy travels,
P.S As usual, all photos featured here were either taken of me or by me and are owned by myself.