Expat Shopping: A Crawl Through the Souk

by Miss Footloose

I’m not much of a shopper, but as an expat and a traveler I love wandering around foreign markets — the big sprawling, smelly ones in Africa, the small village markets in southern Europe, the exotic souks of the Middle East. I love them all.

Photo by Chadica / cc Souk in Old City of Jerusalem, tourist junk.

When we lived in Ramallah, Palestine, where my spouse worked on an American foreign aid project, I would on occasion hitch a ride into Jerusalem with him and spend a couple of hours exploring the Old City. Here’s the tale of one of my wanderings in the souk. I’ve posted this story once before, more than a year ago, but I’ve tarted it up with more links and photos. I’m offering it up again in the hope that you might find some respite from your daily struggles while reading it.


My man has a meeting in East Jerusalem and drops me off at the Damascus Gate (see photo) so I can get my fix of souk crawling and do a little shopping.

The Muslim Quarter is a buzzing beehive of a souk as well as home to thousands of Palestinians. It’s not the place for claustrophobics, but I love the ancient, crowded cobblestone alleys lined with small open-fronted shops selling everything you might need for living–fresh goat meat, bed sheets, shoe polish, cell phones. And yes, available also is all the tourist stuff a souvenir junky might crave for a fix.

I love to watch the people, notice their clothes: Young and old in plain western get ups, old men with keffiyahs, women wearing scarves, girls in jeans and tight tops.

The souk is not your average western Walmart Superstore or Supermercato, but whatever you need is here. Well, maybe not Hostess cupcakes, but who knows, I might be wrong. I love inhaling the exotic fragrances at the shops selling herbs and spices, marvel over the colorful varieties of nuts and seeds, beans and grains heaped up in barrels and bins. I can’t imagine what half of them are and I know plenty. At one of the stalls I buy some bulgur wheat so I can make my own tabouleh, at another some dried figs.

I study the heavy old doors in the ancient walls that lead to houses and courtyards. These places have been here for centuries, are still in use, and they intrigue me. I’d love to push one open, go inside, see how people live there. Somehow you expect that if you had a chance to look inside, you’d see a live biblical scene. Not that I’m quite sure what that would be. Someone slaughtering a sheep in the courtyard? A woman stirring a pot of lentils over an open fire?

Today is my lucky day. I spot a door ajar and I get my chance. Feeling a bit sneaky and indiscreet, I peek in, hoping for something exotic, if not biblical.

What I see is a yellow Fisher Price toy dump truck. Okay, one fantasy gone. (Mom in the back is probably at her lap top e-mailing her cousin in California.)

I continue my stroll along the cobbled stone alleyways and buy fresh bread from a small bakery, including – for a snack — a manakeesh, also referred to as a Palestinian pizza, or za’atar pie. It’s often eaten for breakfast.

Photo by avlxyz / cc

It’s a round piece of flat bread the size of a largish saucer spread with a mixture of olive oil and za’atar, an herb-and-spice blend used all over the Middle East. A manakeesh doesn’t taste anything like pizza. The only thing the two have in common is the flat round shape.

The friendly baker heats one up for me and I eat it as I saunter along, getting lost in the maze of alleys, then finding my way again. It will take a while before I really know these winding, cramped passages, but getting lost is fun.

In front of me three Muslim teenage girls are walking home from school, talking and laughing. They’re wearing pretty white scarves hiding their hair and long thin coats that cover up every inch of their clothes. They’re carrying Jansport book bags. Just like the kids at home. The backpacks make an interesting contrast with their clothes.

I follow them past the shops selling coffee and dried fruit and philosophize about the old and the new, the foreign and the familiar, about war and peace. Since I’m not Nietzsche, I’ll spare you my mental meanderings. Let’s just say I think about innocent children living in ancient houses playing with American toys, about giggly Muslim girls wearing pretty head scarves, talking about . . . what?

Boys and love, I suspect.

I watch the girls as they move along, all covered up from head to toe. But not quite: Below the hems of their long coats I glimpse blue jeans and Nike sneakers.

* * *
Don’t you just love markets? Have you ever had a fun or interesting encounter or experience in a market? Or do you have a tale about the contrast between old and new, the traditional and the modern? Tell me, I’m waiting!

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Victoria Allman

Mmmm…I’m going to go make manakeesh for breakfast right now. It looks fabulous! Great story.

Not really the market itself, but when I lived on Sicily, I once went to the market in Vittoria with a friend. We got there by taking the bus and to get back to our Club Med village we also had to take the bus. As we were waiting for the bus, more and more grannies started surrounding us. And more were still coming from the market to wait for the bus with us. There must have been at least 70 of them. Seventy tiny grannies, all at least a head shorter than my friend and me. And then, the… Read more »

@ Victoria: I’m wondering what you thought of the manakeesh. It may be an acquired taste, especially for breakfast. I love it, though!

@ Mara, that is such a great story! It would make a fun video!

@ Mitr Friend: A lot of Middle Eastern food is delicious and healthy as well!

Very interesting post. Food is always fun to explore in other countries.


Interested in your travels, I supported a Deaf School in Kenya when I was 16 years in Singapore.

Had a neighbour from Ghana and ate their food. was it FU FU?

I love to explore the souks wherever I find them. There are always so many intresting things you cab find there..

Mmm…I love za’atar! Wish I could get some here.
I have many market stories. Last time I was at our local souk, I found myself kissing a baby. It was expected of me. Moroccans love to fuss over children, and will pat and stroke and kiss one at any opportunity. I was admiring one plump speciman and found him being proferred for my kiss, so I went along. Felt rather like a politician, but it was well received.

That market place is really beautiful…my shopping button was pushed. Love the blog.

Hi Miss Footloose,
Thanks for your comment. It gave me a good laugh this morning. Anybody who loves Enid Blyton and BB is somebody I have to follow!
So impressed with your prolific writing career. My very first ever book attempt was The Hand of Destiny which was a romance and thankfully rejected. It was pretty awful but taught me that I could finish a book. There’s a real trick to writing romance well.
Cheerio. xx

Hello there, I’ve also walked the streets of the old city. My mistake was going at Easter and having to fight my way round alongside many Christian pilgrims. Some even had these crosses that they were labouring under as they walked the Via Dolorosa. Not for me, I’m afraid. Yes, this is a fascinating area – I loved it. There were such interesting scultures in some of the gardens and I went to all the different parts. My worst experience was a cafe toilet in the Arab Quarter – it was worse than some of the old ones I’ve encountered… Read more »

Thanks for taking me along on your shopping excursion. I’m so glad we peeked through that door, even if we didn’t see a biblical scene. I’m still trying to shake the image of a young Jesus playing with a Fisher Price dump truck out of my head.

Hello and what a fabulous blog you have. I love markets too and would love to visit the ones you describe.

Butternut Squash

I love meandering, peeking into doors. I imagine that we have a lot in common. When I lived in Japan, they had ‘okinomiyaki’ which they called ‘Japanese pizza.’ It was more like a fishy omelette. In Nepal, they have pizza, but it is made with yak milk cheese. It’s just not quite right.

You have a very interesting blog.

Will be looking forward to your posts 🙂

I’ve just been laughing (no, how harsh I sound)… I mean commiserating about the time your pink bathroom lost its pinkness. I can still smell the disinfectant on you.


I just LOVE markets, and wish there were more here in South Africa, but no nothing as interesting as in the rest of the African continent…

First time on your blog. Liked the descrption, the fotos and info posted here. Has to come back to continue reading

I am soooo jealous. I loved Jerusalem but was only there once, despite once having been married to an Israeli. Beautifully evocative post. Thanks for republishing it.

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