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A souq, or outdoor Middle East marketplace, is frequently a labyrinth of crowded, busy and loud streets with masses of aggressive shopkeepers calling out at you to buy their goods. Other times, such as in the Gulf countries, souqs are smaller, quieter and actually even quite orderly.
No matter their size or their character, these Middle East marketplaces are full of energy, culturally revealing and photogenic while at the same time intimidating with their language barriers and the need to bargain.
I personally find souqs fascinating and fun. I’ve strolled through and shopped in at least a dozen throughout the Middle East while working and traveling the world. From Jerusalem’s chaotic walled Old City to Qatar’s lovely and quiet Souq Waqif, from the huge crowds at Khan el Khalili souq in Egypt to the few local people who stroll through Al Husn souq in Salalah, Oman, I’ve experienced quite a few Middle East marketplaces.
Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve come up with the following 10 tips to help make your time in any Middle Eastern souq as pleasant and non-stressful as possible.
10 Tips for Shopping in a Souq
1. 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.
2. Leave the map behind – If you’re ever given a map of a souq, toss it. Small or large, souqs are usually unsigned and frequently winding and chaotic. A map isn’t going to help at all.
3. Take a friend – Two heads think better than one, and a souq is one place you might need two (figurative) heads.
4. Take a break – If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, find your way out of the souq and go back later. You’ll be able to think more clearly and end up feeling less pressured.
5. Dress modestly – In some areas in the Middle East, like Israel, Palestine and Dubai, 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 harassment and stares.
6. Don’t be shy – Shopkeepers in Middle East marketplaces are largely nice and safe people. They may be aggressive sometimes, but this is just because they need to make a sale. Don’t act timid, though, or someone particularly aggressive may run all over you.
7. 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 a feel for its people, layout and goods for sale. You can go back later after you’ve gotten used to the probable hassling, with a clearer head and a better idea of how to handle it.
8. 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.
9. 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 in the Middle East marketplace 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.
10. Show confidence – Try not to look intimidated or confused by the chaos of the souq, and you might not only place yourself in a better bargaining position but enable yourself to enjoy the experience and have a good time.
Now that you know what to do, enjoy shopping in the souqs of the Middle East.
Sabina Lohr is a lifelong freelancer turned entrepreneur who created World of Freelancers to help others discover how to work for themselves online and live the freelance lifestyle. She’s always really enjoyed the freedom that freelancing brings, including several years on and off of working online while traveling and living abroad.