Shopping in the Souk

Our new boat Shawa’al sported a kettle with a coat hanger handle so I had decided to treat ourselves to a new one. Looking round the supermarkets only electric ones were on offer and, as the boat has no mains power except when in the marina, these were of no use. So I decided a trip to the souk might be in order. Last Thursday Kevin needed to be in the office by 9am so after dropping him off in the Diplomatic Area, I drove through the Manama Gate and parked uder the Yateem Mall, one of the oldest, if not the oldest shopping centre in Bahrain. Its a greeny glass box on the outside and inside its full of those little shops that seem to sell nothing you’d want to buy, think 1970s Britian. It reminded me of those little covered alleyways or converted larger stores in the towns of west Wales that do duty as indoor malls.

Walking out and down the street I was soon in the Manama souk proper, narrow streets where goods spill out onto the pavement, piled up and hanging down so when walking you have to watch your step and be prepared to duck simultaneously. Pedestrians vie with cars, four by fours, vans and the flat barrows of the vegetable sellers. Like markets the world over the shops are grouped by type so find one shop selling kitchenwares and you’ll have a dozen to choose from. The first one was quite spacious inside, tardis-like in fact given its narrow frontage. Me: “I’m looking for a kettle?” Shopkeeper: “Like this?” proffering a nice stainless steel teapot. “umm no not exactly, something to boil water on the gas..”  “Ah you want one of these” thrusting a large tiffin pot at me. “Well no, I was looking for a kettle, you know with a spout and a whistle” “Sorry madam we don’t sell”. I got the impression he didn’t really have a clue what it was I was shopping for.

A few steps further on was a corner stall/store with aluminium cooking vessels, brushes, plastic storage boxes and more piled up outside. Inside another huge interior where the number of staff (six) outweighed the customers (just me) but it was early. Here were shelves stacked with all manner of kitchen equipment as well as goods piled on the floor. I went through my request again being a little more precise in my first request to ensure they understood exactly what it was I needed. The elderly Indian gentleman who’d welcomed me to his store and offered assistance, dispatched two of the staff to different corners of the shop to return brandishing not one but two kettles. Why not group them together?

The first was a shiney yellowy dome shape reminscent of Temptress’ outsized kettle purchased many moons ago at a Debenhams sale in Southsea, gosh that’s a world away from where I’m shopping now. The second a smaller, more traditional-looking straight sided kettle with a curvey spout and a maroon folding handle set off with a gold stripe. The latter had a little hinged flap on its spout which rattles rather than whistles but will easily alert Shawa’als crew that it’s come to the boil as the galley is close to the cockpit. The former was a bit too big for a small boat, had a slight dent and the metal was an odd yellowy colour so was rejected. “How much?” Although I could see the label with 4.500/- on it. “Four dinar madam” – so much for haggling then. I did try to get it for three but in the end we settled on 3.500 dinar.

Traditional Bahraini Baskets
On my way to the “kitchen souk” I had passed a little store selling traditional Bahraini crafts. Since shortly after we arrived in Bahrain I had been looking for baskets. One I had purchased from a van that parked on empty land on the main road into Juffair but the seller had moved on once the Grand Prix was over. That basket acts as a shoe rack by the front door to avoid dust being trapsed in. A larger basket would be useful for dirty laundry, rather than the heap on the bedroom floor. It took me a few minutes to find the craft stall again, everyone I passed trying to sell me pashmina’s, overstuffed toy camels or Bahraini t-shirts. If you retort that you live here and don’t need tourist items you end up in a lively conversation whilst they try to find something else you might buy – all good clean fun which I quite enjoy. Oddly every shopkeeper has a business card to hand “in case you need something later”.

Outside the little craft store was a stack of large baskets and rolled up mats made from woven palm fronds some dyed purple the rest plain to generate pleasingt patterns. The tiny, elderly Bahraini in his white dishdasha and headress started by showing me some large woven platters in various designs – the palm fornds dyed charcoal or green as well as the purple. I shook my head “I am looking for a large basket”. “Ah you like a lot of shopping” he smiled picking up exactly the one I had my eye on. Its slightly squishy with short handles on either side that are secuely fastened so could indeed be used as an oversized shopping basket, though I doubt I would be able to lift it once full. We haggled over the price but it was a bit lacklustre on my side as his initial price was far below that paid for the smaller one I already owned. He did moan that it was hard to make a living when we’d closed the deal and promptly signalled a rather chubby young Indian man hovering nearby to put the basket into a carrier bag – I wasn’t aware that carrier bags could be made that big!

What happened next still makes me chuckle. The carrier bag was handed over in exchange for four dinars, made up of one and half dinar notes (the Bahraini equivalent of pound coins and 50p’s although worth almost twice as much). The young man picked up a tatty, poorly made, metal coffee pot that looked like it had seen life and popped it into the bag. What is this, buy a basket and get a free coffee pot? “Five dinars” he said smiling at me “you need coffee pot”, more a statement than a question. “No sorry I don’t”. “Four dinars?” he tried. “No” I said firmly, making to remove the unwanted object from the bag. “Oh well, you’ll regret it madam, everyone needs a coffee pot” And with that he took it out and placed it back on the pile of similarly tatty pots sitting on the pavement outside the shop. All done with good humour and the tiny, elderly Arab guy shook my hand as I left! Shopping in the UK has never been such fun.