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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Fuctions of Souq

According Nabil Sultan, Chairman of the Muslim Cultural Festival of Liverpool, the notion of Souq (Bazaar) in many of people’s minds is likely to evoke images of a crowded and narrow-passageways market place where colourful cultural goods of all kinds are on display in an atmosphere filled with aromatic scents emanating from the burning of incense and other exotic air-freshening products on sale. In fact, this is probably typical of many traditional souqs in the Middle East today. Souq comes from the Arabic word for a traditional market and word Bazaar is its Persian equivalent.

Moreover, as well as being trade centres for selling a variety of goods, some tended to specialise in certain commodities. For example, the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the Spice Bazaar) in Istanbul (Turkey) was largely used in the past for marketing spices, mainly from Egypt. Many of the goods on sale today in this market are still spices, a mighty selection of them.

In many cultures (including Islamic) souqs – throughout history – served vital economic and commercial purposes within local communities. However, in pre-Islamic and post-Islamic Arabia seasonal souqs played a much greater role. Souq Okadh, for example, which was held annually at a location close to Mecca, attracted merchants, shoppers and tribal dignatories from a much wider geographical area. However, this souq served many other significant purposes e.g. social, political and artistic. The Prophet Mohammad used it briefly (and unsuccessfully) when he started to spread his message of Islam and had to endure the insults of many people, not least his uncle (Abu Lahab) who used to follow him and urge his listeners not to believe him. Some tribes used the souq to disown some of their tribal members as a way of punishment, some used it to seek justice by appealing to others (often people of power) to help them force their debtors to repay their debts. Others used the event to find beauty and seek to get engaged or get married. Most interestingly, the souq was a magnet for orators and poets and this factor became (largely) the source of much of its fame then and for hundreds of years afterwards.

There were many other souqs at the time but, by far, Okadh was the most famous. The only other famous souq that inherited Okadh’s artistic reputation was the souq of Merbad which was located in today’s Basra in Iraq. The souq flourished during the Umayyad Khalifate (which began shortly after the Prophet Mohammad’s death) and was the scene of fierce competitions between two that era’s most prominent poets: Jarir and Al-Farazdaq.

The Arts Souq (Bazaar) of Liverpool (which we are hoping will become an annual event in Liverpool and evidence of its cultural and artistic heritage) is seeking to resurrect the idea that souqs (while useful commercial venues) can also serve many other important aesthetic and educational purposes.

The timing of this Arts Souq (Bazaar) is also significant. It is held immediately after the fasting month of Ramadan and falls within the festivities period of Eid Al-Fitre (the Muslim Festival) that follows immediately after Ramadan. This period (the month of Dhol-Q'ada) is one of four months considered to be the most revered (and peaceful) in both the Islamic and pre-Islamic calendars. Souq Okadh was traditionally held during one those months where arms conflicts were strictly prohibited. This atmosphere of local and regional peace was vital for its success and popularity at that time.

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