Published — Wednesday 24 July 2013
Last update 12 August 2013 10:28 am
Downtown Jeddah attracts hundreds of locals during Ramadan, most of them looking to spend quality time with their families in a quintessential setting and enjoy traditional Hejazi food.
Al-Balad comes alive during Ramadan as large numbers of citizens and expats take to its streets, enjoying the heritage and local traditions.
“I love taking my children to hang out and spend family-time in Al-Balad; I relay stories to them about how it was and how my father used to take us every Ramadan to walk where my grandparents walked and see where they used to live,” said Sameer Abduljawwad, 54-year-old college professor. “I know my children might not like going to the same place every year, but these will be great memories that they will someday cherish,” he added.
Many shopkeepers have been working and selling their products for generations now, some even inherited their jobs from their fathers and grandfathers.
“Its sad to see downtown shops no longer operated by Saudis. I guess the younger generation is now busy with their phones and want to work behind a desk,” said Abu Mahmoud, a salesman at an Oud shop. “My great-grandfather owned this place and used to mix the oud himself and his son acquired the profession after him and so did I; I love this job and I hope one day, my son will do the same. We are known for this profession and I want to preserve the family business,” he added.
Going to Al-Balad can be one of the most exciting things to do, especially in Ramadan when the festive decoration and the tempting food stalls are everywhere. When walking to the center of Al-Balad you will pass by street peddlers who spread their products on the ground, asking you to buy. “We get our products from a businessman. He pays us a daily fee and we get tips if we sell more,” said Kahireyya, a Yemeni street peddler selling plastic children’s toys. “I love this area because it is full of people and it is entertaining; even if I don’t sell a lot,” she added.
Walking past the street peddlers will lead you to the core of the historical area where you will find the food stalls, especially those selling “baleela”, street-warm chickpeas dishes. “We all come from different areas and we have been selling here for years. Most of us have morning jobs and we like to be here because it’s a tradition for us and we want to hold on to it,” said Abu Khalid. “You cannot imagine the income that we get from selling a six riyal cup on baleela. Many people come from all around the Kingdom to eat this popular dish and we are so proud of that,” he added.
Other than baleela, there are also date stalls from all around the Kingdom. Here you will find all types of different dates, from fat, sugary Qassim dates to the dark and flavorful Ajwa dates, believed to be the dates the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ate to break his fasts. “We begin selling dates one month before Ramadan because we know there is high demand for it. People like to break their fast with a few dates, they also buy each other baskets of dates as gifts and send their family and friends,” said Am Mohammed. “We also offer supplies to local restaurants and cafes that offer Ramadan iftar. We spend time and money to clean them and put them in beautiful boxes to attract people to buy them,” he added.
Walking further you will encounter the gold market called Souk Al-Nada where you can find different gold and diamond designs that are reflective of the Saudi culture. At this souk, you will also come across Hussien Al-Abdali who has been selling miswak for 45 years in the same location; I highly recommend you buy his miswak.
Walking toward the open souk you will be heading toward Souk Al-Alawi, which is the oldest souk in Jeddah, of course it has been renovated and the merchandise now differs from what it used to be. In this market you will be find fabrics, carpets, electronics, accessories, oud among many other items. You should pay a visit to Abu Deema’s Kebda stall, which offers cooked liver. He is known for the best kebda in the area and people come from different parts of Jeddah just to buy his delicious sandwiches.
Near the souk is the well-known Beit Nassief (Nassief’s house), one of the well-preserved examples of old Jeddawi architecture, including a staircase designed wide enough to allow a camel to transport goods to the rooftop gazebo for festive occasions.
Every Ramadan the location host’s daily entertainment and cultural events, including poetry recitals and play productions by artists dressed in traditional Hejazi outfits, with themes centered on traditional customs.
Ali, a folkloric dancer, laments that many younger Saudis do not know about their traditions anymore. “This is why we keep repeating the local folkloric plays to introduce the youth of them,” he said. “At other times, a storyteller narrates stories from the past to an audience of many different nationalities.”
Leaving Beit Nassief on your right and walking toward Al-Khaskeyya Souk you will also find fabrics, accessories and clothing that are cheap and colorful.
“This is a great place to get good deals and bargains on perfumes and handbags. I buy my Eid clothing, abayas and other accessories from here and I always get complements for fusing Saudi and Indian fashion styles together,” said Mariam an Indian expatriate living in Jeddah.
When you visit Al-Balad, make sure to bring your camera along with you to take photos of the old buildings and people; I personally love seeing the traditional Hejazi outfits and food stalls.