Beit Al-Faqih souq still draws crowds after 800 years [Archives:2008/1137/Reportage]

March 13 2008

By: Ian Massey
For Yemen Times

Beit Al-Faqih's Friday market is one of the most spectacular events in Yemen. Throughout the week, this small town of 5,000 lies dormant, but every Friday, thousands flock to the souq – reportedly Yemen's largest – to ply their trade, sell their goods or stock up for the coming week.

The souq sells sculptures, foodstuffs and a seemingly unending array of livestock. The range of colors, the cacophony of animal sounds and haggling human voices meld with the wafting aromas of spices and food stalls preparing lunch. All of these elements, combined with Beit Al-Faqih's scorching temperatures, tickle the senses and provide a unique shopping experience.

Beit Al-Faqih, which means “the House of the Scholar,” is a small town in Hodeidah governorate named after traveling scholar Ahmed Bin Musa Al-'Ujayl, the town's founding father.

A sleepy town midway between Zabid and Hodeidah, it's not an obvious location for such a vibrant event as the Friday souq. With only a couple of roads, a restaurant and a filling station, the town is tacked onto the souq – not the other way around. Come dawn every Friday, the town floods with more than 25,000 people all gravitating toward the enormous market.

Since its inception during the 13th century, the souq's scale has grown and the exact nature of the market has evolved over time, but it retains its vibrancy amid the eclectic mix of traders, customers and onlookers.

Historically, the fortunes of Beit Al-Faqih and its colossal market have been intertwined with that of the coffee industry, when the market emerged as a linchpin of the Yemeni coffee trade over 800 years ago.

The spread of coffee's popularity throughout the Tihama between the 13th and 16th centuries dictated the need for a centralized distribution point. By then, coffee cultivation was ingrained in Yemen's agrarian society and nascent economy. A sedate and well-hidden settlement up until then, Beit Al-Faqih became a cornerstone of both the local and international coffee markets.

The town's fame spread throughout Yemen and beyond until the name “Beit Al-Faqih” became synonymous with the finest coffee in the world. Merchants and traders flocked to Beit Al-Faqih, spurred by the rapidly growing demand for Yemeni coffee. Traders would buy the coffee and then resell it at home for vast profits.

Danish explorer Carsten Niebhur recorded the market's truly international nature in his diary in 1763. Neibhur noted that, in order to buy Yemeni coffee, “Merchants come to this town from Al-Hijaz, Egypt, Syria, Constantinople and from Fez and Morocco, from Abyssinia, from the east coast of Arabia, from Persia, India and at times, also from Europe.”

By the 17th century, Beit Al-Faqih had evolved into a cosmopolitan commercial town.

The Middle East's long-established demand for coffee, combined with coffee's popularity in the fashionable districts of Constantinople, Paris and London, resulted in many commercial expeditions to Beit Al-Faqih from as far afield as Europe.

As foreign traders began learning the secrets of coffee cultivation over time, Beit Al-Faqih's international and even national importance declined. However, the town's souq has shown a durability that has outlasted the decline of Yemen's coffee trade.

Today, few international visitors can be seen on any given Friday, but in terms of scale and vibrancy, the market has retained many of its characteristics. The 25,000 people who arrive every week embody the market's importance to the Tihama population and testify to the unique qualities of the souq as a total experience.

Threading between the plethora of stalls, the hordes of people, the colors, sounds and smells of the souq – not to mention the intense Tihama heat – all stimulate the senses.

Beit Al-Faqih's proximity to Zabid, which periodically claims the title of “the hottest town on earth,” means that the souq acts as a cauldron accentuating the already stifling heat. Because of this, the souq operates at a frenetic pace, with local traders conducting business at lightning speed to sell as much as possible before the market closes at midday in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the heat.

Throughout Yemen, the souq lies at the heart of communal life as an arena for the exchange of greetings, the spread of gossip and the concluding of business. This is most noticeable while weaving between the goats, cows, chickens and camels in the animal section; or tiptoeing through the cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices; or exploring the intricate wares of local artisans.

It's hard not to appreciate the exalted position that social interaction and personal contact have retained in the weekly life of these Tihama merchants.

The local souq is an institution and the one at Beit Al-Faqih, with its thousands of visitors and innumerable stalls, personifies this concept.