The depths of the souq

Few retail experiences are as intense as an Arab market.

Alexandria’s souq takes up dpzens of streets around my hotel, and as night falls, further streets materialise: vehicles and spaces co-opted to define fresh little passageways filled with merchants. I plunge in to explore.

The outer layers of the souq are still street vendors, the retail underclass, but as I press in I climb the social strata quickly. The most important merchants are those owning actual buildings within the labyrinth, their shops at the centre of the commerce, stores with the highest footfall and the most determined customers. The shops at the centre of the souq even sell to other merchants: their homespun jewellery is on sale in a dozen places closer to the souq’s edges, from wares-on-a-rug hawkers to smoky emporia thick with gold and perfume. Little franchise operations with licensed territories just twenty metres in diameter.

I’m among such jewellers now, 18k gold and silverware shining in windows. Unlike Cairo’s Khan-al-Khalili, few merchants call me out; this isn’t tourist territory, and they have no time for those not buying. I press on.

Whole interlocking economies exist within this maze, raw materials exchanged and processed into finished goods. Fluffy cotton bols and finished tailored shirts exude from neighbouring stalls like squeezed toothpaste, fat rolls of textiles lolling flabbily on shelf stacks four metres high. Perhaps the business-to-business sector is where the real action is in a souq. Perhaps this Arab version of just-in-time logistics works as efficiently as any Western conglomerate, complex software and supply chains replaced by the simple action of… Listening to what’s happening in the alley outside your shop.

A tray of eclairs sits on the pavement, thirty centimetres from the traffic that somehow stop-starts through the seething crowds. Teamen thread past, urns shouldered.

I realise I’m lost, lost in the maze of gold and perfume. Unsure of retracing, I strike out for the market’s edges, and fight my way onto the Corniche I breathe in the Med and look around.

I’m a long, long way from my hotel; it takes nearly half an hour to walk along the seafront to the landmark I recognise. Heading for my hotel, the souq beckons again, even as I catch sight of my third floor window. Maybe one more time…

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