Lakshmi Kothaneth –
Markets mushroom where people gather. It is fascinating how souqs in Oman have played social and cultural roles in addition to being the place of trade.
A walk into the Fanja Souq generates distinct energy. There are products from different parts of Oman and other lands. People stop by to scan the shops and pick their choice. Customers are almost regular and do not mind driving distances because they know the souq has what they need.
Muttrah Souq has left its mark in the history of commerce and trade in the country. It was the ideal setting with a natural harbour for traders to come from the interior, while ships were ready to take their products to other shores.
Speaking to Ali Mohammed Sultan, a resident of Muttrah, on a programme called ‘Book of Memories’ on a local radio channel, brought glimpses of how life used to revolve in and around the souq. Its traders used to export fish, dry lemon, pottery and firewood until the 1950s.
Ali remembers development was also experienced through the souq. An example was the introduction of electricity and generators. It was the businessmen who managed it initially, according to Ali.
The concept of saving money came along with the arrival of banks in town. Bankers spent time introducing the benefits of having an account. It was enchanting to listen to Ali recollecting the days when he was just 10 years old.
“My father used to hand me money every day to deposit it in the bank. There were jobs and they were training potential candidates. What was more interesting was there were people who joined at the basic level but banks trained them so well that they reached higher posts with efficiency.”
Lifestyle in Muttrah was also cosmopolitan, he says, because there was interaction with so many cultures. There were schools within the Muttrah Souq area. Ali explained why, “It was natural because this is where everyone was.”
There was a place where students would hang out when they skipped classes. “It is where the port is now. It was a lovely area where children loved to play around. Most importantly, children assisted their fathers in business,” said Ali.
They just grew up knowing how to handle customers, maintain accounts and manage business.
Growing up, Ali went on to master the real estate sector, while some students trained at the banks are today CEOs and hold top positions in leading financial establishments in the country.
Meeting Yaqoob al Farsi at Fanja Souq was pure chance but conversing with him revealed he has had a very interesting career and took retirement to be his own boss. Out of all the shops in Fanja Souq, luck would have it that we naturally were drawn to Yaqoob’s shop.
He dreaded giving interviews, he said, but in minutes he was the host giving us expert advice on how to choose original honey.
He has passion, it was clear, as we watch him rush from one customer to another and yet take time to sit down to talk to us about the old souq compared with the new one, tourism sector and the summer and the rain.
What would inspire one to retire from a comfortable job to start business? The comfort of knowing the salary is coming to the bank at the end of the month is definitely appealing compared with solving problems and facing challenges depending on one’s own skills.
Some would say it is freedom but the reality is it is responsibility.
When the latest report says there is more than a 30-per cent dip in new small and medium industries (SMEs) registering in Oman, what makes individuals like Yaqoob sustain their business?
He looks out for new production places. He keeps an eye on the demand. He knows there is a demand for traditional products such as dried fish, dried lime, pottery and other household items.
Souqs, the traditional markets, are part of the national heritage. It is fascinating that they breathe life even today and are some of the top tourist attractions. To keep them sustainable, we just have to shop more in traditional souqs.