Jeddah’s Qabil Street Still Retains Its Charm

Arab News
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2007-10-15 03:00

JEDDAH, 15 October 2007 — Qabil Street, one of the oldest business streets in Jeddah, dates back to the early days of 20th century. The street got its name from the Qabil family that owned land originally.

The street has served as the hub of trade since even before it was officially a street. Located in the heart of Jeddah’s historic center, Qabil is a favorite go-to place, especially for people paying a visit to the area’s many gold and currency-exchange shops. A souq and the many tiny Old Arabian storefronts adjoining or located on the street make the area a traditional one-stop shopping destination within a larger commercial district.

Qabil is particularly active during Ramadan and Eid. Holiday stalls are set up selling candies and seasonal dishes. Simply getting to Qabil Street during the holiday can mean parking far away and walking blocks, or paying cab drivers a premium to go into or out of the crowded city center. Other times of the year, Qabil still remains a popular destination, albeit easier to access.

The old commercial buildings of Qabil St. are still standing proudly preserving the historical character of the city. Most of the buildings carry the Hijazi architectural features with a marked stamp of the Islamic architecture of the Egyptian Arabesque and Andalusian style: buildings lined on narrow alleyways made from blocks of dead coral with intricately carved wooden window scrims.

Being the principal gateway to Makkah, Islam’s holiest city, Jeddah has been the meeting point of Haj pilgrims of various nationalities.

According to early Muslim records, Othman ibn Affan (may God be pleased with him), the third of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, officially turned Jeddah into the port of entry for Muslim pilgrims in 647 A.D.

According to Abdullah Bajabei, one of the oldest residents of Qabil Street, the history of Jeddah could not be separated from the history of Jeddah’s most famous and most photographed lane (which long ago became for pedestrians only, a nice respite from the city’s notorious vehicular traffic).

“Qabil Street was the nucleus of the small city,” said Bajabei. “It was the first street in the city to be electrified; all the leading businessmen wanted to do business in the street.”

Modern Jeddah is a rapidly expanding city of between two and three million people. But the demographic explosion is a fairly recent phenomenon. In 1947, the population of the city was less than 30,000 people; by 1970 the number of residents was still considerably less than 100,000. By 2005 the population grew to over 1.25 million.

Today it is estimated that about 2.5 million people call Jeddah home, though with the growing number of visa overstayers and undocumented migrants the real demography is increasingly harder to tally.

And through this growth, Qabil Street and the vicinity has remained the nucleus of the city’s long commercial history. Jeddah is also considered the commercial capital of the Kingdom, the second-largest port city in the Middle East and traditionally one of the wealthiest cities in the Arab world.

Bajabei added that in the old days, the street specialized in handicrafts, but gradually imported textiles, shoes, gold, sweets, watches, electrical appliances and other accessories alongside locally manufactured goods, have replaced traditional products.

“During the Ramadan and Eid the street would transform to a colorful world wafting around oriental fragrances of Oud, sandalwood and ambergris, and of course mouthwatering dishes of kibda and kebab,” Bajabei said.

Several smaller souqs have branched out from the main street. One of them is the Souk Al-Alawi, which divides between the Harrah Mazloum in the north and Harrah Yemen in the south.

Products such as fancy clothes, spices and utensils are available in this street. While the Souk Al-Badawi, which is close to the Bab Makkah (the main departure point for people seeking rides to the holy city), displays wares such as spices, cereals and clothes that are dear to the Bedouins, the Souk Al-Nada that stretches out parallel to the western side of the city wall and its northern side ends at the north west of the city is well known for goods as diverse as books, fried fish, handmade shoes and bags.

Though new streets and markets have grown in Jeddah making it one of the wealthiest cities in the Middle East, the old city has a special charm for both the locals and the foreign visitors, said Bajabei.

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