Tasneem Alsultan is a Saudi-based photographer who enjoys showing unique perspectives of everyday life. On the first day of Ramadan 2021, she went to chat with locals at a souq in Riyadh. Here’s what she experienced and who she met along the way.
In many cities around the world, you may find an old market that’s become a staple for locals. In Saudi’s capital city of Riyadh, it’s the Deira Souq. Here you’ll find Egyptian cotton pajamas, Cambodian incense, Korean speakers, Yemeni honey and Persian carpets.
While Muslims around the world abstain from drinks and food from dawn to sunset each day of the holy month of Ramadan, we all break our fast in our hometowns when we hear the call to prayer at sunset, and it was just after sunset on the first day of Ramadan that I began strolling through the Deira Souq. Below are some people I met along the way as well as their tips for travelers when at a souq in Saudi.
Majid Abdulla, a 34-year-old writer, visits the bustling market to add to his collection of silver rings. He ate a quick meal before walking to the souq from his home. “I enjoy staying home, and only leave when needed, but walking in this market is a weekly routine,” he says. Born and raised in Riyadh, he confided that visitors should always ask for half the price of what’s offered in the souq. “Then you can work out the price that suits you both [you and the salesman],” he says as a salesman nods his head in approval.
Hamdy Saleh, an Egyptian national who has worked as a plumber in Saudi for more than 25 years, is busy on FaceTime with his wife, who is home in Cairo. He’s standing in a store full of children’s clothes and showing his wife the many choices available. “[The souq’s] clothes are cheaper than any mall or department store,” Saleh says, adding that his family purchases all their clothes and shoes from Deira Souq.
Riyadh locals Manal Ali and her son, Abdualla, come to this souq every Ramadan to buy Eid gifts and clothes for the upcoming year. “I buy abayas, home clothes, perfumes and even kitchen appliances from here,” she says, adding that if a store is old and disorganized, “it means they’re expecting you to negotiate the price.”
Though most shoppers were ill-prepared and without umbrellas like me, almost everyone at the souq smiled as it started to lightly rain. The shift was a welcome reprieve from the heavier air, and it led me to look up and see three friends walking toward me under one large umbrella. To my surprise, the woman holding the umbrella started calling my name.
“Tasneem? What are you doing here? It’s me, Hessa Alajaji!” she says. Hessa and I met via social media, but this encounter at the souq is our first time to meet in person. Hessa and her friends Kholood and Mohammed are looking for big carpets to furnish Kholood’s new home.
“We all stopped and [tested] amazing Cambodian incense,” she says. “We don’t always have to buy, so it’s a treat to look forward [to trying out new scents] and end our shopping here.” She points to another incense kiosk and follows them in just to indulge in the welcoming smoky aroma.
As I continue to stroll through the market, each salesman points to his store and welcomes me. “Carpet? Radio? Wool jacket? What do you want?” they all ask me and every other passerby.
As I turn the corner, I am pleasantly surprised there’s a live auction going on inside the souq. Meanwhile in the outdoor hustle and bustle of this market, goods for sale are spread out, and I see a man holding a magnifying glass crouch over to examine a variety of silver spoons and forks in front of him. The man next to him spots me and asks if I want anything. “Ask me, and I’ll point you [in the right direction],” he says. I ask him if he’s got any old issues of National Geographic magazine, or other famous publications, with cover stories about Saudi, and he points right and says, “Go to that old man; he saves a lot of old publications.”
Though I was skeptical, my urge to buy something from this old market took over, and I followed his lead. The salesman reveals a LIFE magazine bordered with the publication’s iconic red trim. “Are you interested in this pristine issue of King Abdulaziz from 1943?” he says.
How could I resist? I didn’t. Even though I went to the souq to get shopping tips from its customers, I couldn’t walk away empty-handed.
—Tasneem Alsultan is a Riyadh-based photographer who is a regular contributor to National Geographic and has previously written and photographed for The New York Times to cover Saudi changes and events. All photos featured in this article are by Alsultan.