Popular old Sana’a markets show social change [Archives:2005/900/Culture]

December 5 2005

The old city of Sana'a comprises some forty small popular markets with a unique character that can hardly be found across the Arab region. Within it, there are about 33 caravanserais known locally as “Samsara”, which had a significant role when Sana'a used to lie on the route of trade in the old world. These Samsaras were used as inns for travelers (especially merchants) to sleep in along with their beasts of burden. However, the fame of Sana'a markets is ascribed to its handicrafts and the trading of popular stuff such as raisins and world-class Yemeni coffee.

There is some sort of regularity in the distribution of handicrafts in the city. Each market is concerned with one particular handicraft. For example, there are souks for agate, silverware, fabrics, raisins, etc. And each market has a chief who has a status among other fellowmen giving them his advise and is referred to at times of dispute. He may also give his opinion on the type of matters of the craft of his market. He used to distribute raw materials and products and his responsibilities continued until the 1962 Revolution.

In his writing about Sana'a markets, French writer Frank Mermeir said that post-Revolution Sana'a was no longer “the economic orbit of the city.” This he attributed to enhancement of Yemeni economy's relations with the international markets. The phenomenon of one specific craft being conducted in one place began to change. He went on saying that this was a move and activity that proceeded with very high tensions, due to one demographic factor: the internal immigration from the rural regions of the country. This factor produced great impacts on Sana'a market, one of which had been the influx of several numbers of new craftsmen and businessmen to this market.

However, there were no noticeable changes that occurred on the structure of the personnel working in Sana'a market, except for the tailoring craftsmanship, although a good number of tailors remained in “Aqeel market”.

The situation of the market was greatly changed with the coming in of new traders who are originally from the rural areas. These have become noticeable in the fabric market and the imported leatherware market. Those two specialized markets selling items with connection to the traditional life have remained unchanged because their production needs specific abilities and is associated with particular traditional pattern gained only by means of long experience in this activity. Such markets include “al Mi'tarah Souk” which continued to be monopolized by original merchants and was closed to traders from rural areas.

Still, certain handicraft markets, such as threads, belts and hookahs had been changed into shops promoting imported products. While others remained of a mere symbolic existence only e.g. the markets of the weavers, stoves and head-turbans. Others, such as those of tailors, carpenters, goldsmiths and daggers contain the bulk of the bustling shops. They, however, are subject to the new economic conditions that posted themselves in post-revolution Yemen.

The concept of middleman

The phenomenon of middleman represents had been widespread in Sana'a market for a long time as several of its markets continued to have some persons known as middlemen (Dallaleen). Nevertheless, all those professional men cannot be grouped under the single term of “Dallal” (middleman ), due to the fact that there are many a way to classify each profession in relation to the commodity range and the manner of its marketing. In many cases, the are interlinked. In Sana'a, the “dallal” is basically dealing with the imported commodities, which usually happen to be of low quality. He usually moves around small-business traders promoting among them the newly introduced commodities. Upon registering their orders, the “dallal” places these orders with the wholesaler, who deals with sale of such commodities. Usually out of these transactions, the “dallal” gets his commission for the 2-5% of the total value of commodities he succeeded to sell to these merchants.

The term “dallal” actually first referred to a specialized “middleman” trading in the marketing of the agricultural products (kindle wood, vegetables, fruits, etc.). The term in Sana'a is replaced by “Musleh” (reconciler) i.e. the bargainer between the owner of a commodity and a seller. This bargainer receives such agricultural products either in his shop or at the market yard. He goes on marketing them on his behalf and for the interest of the rural sellers, who do not interfere with his bargaining with the buyer. The existing relationship between the producers and middle men is often based on commission ranging between 2-5%.

Frank Mermeir maintained in his writing about Yemeni souks that it may be difficult sometimes to know the difference between “Al-Musleh” and “Al-Wakeel” (the broker and agent), particularly for the reason that the latter also does the marketing of agricultural products. Moreover, he deals with other affairs conducted outside the marketplace. Within the marketplace, the agent is concerned with trading in raisins, coffee, coffee husks, qat and grains. But other agents specialize in distributing locally manufactured and imported products. In the first case, the agent acting as broker usually gets a 5-10% commission. Some agents may also deal in distributing the commodities in the market.

The terms of payment usually depend on the relations of such brokers with either the concerned wholesalers or retailers. In general, however, they receive their commission amounts on the same day the transactions occurs. For other products such as raisins and coffee husks, the period differ and is up to three months.

Grains, raisins and coffee husk

Mermeir said that in 1985, there were only 14 shops selling raisins, dates and sweets.

He describes “All are situated in one line of one street in Sana'a Market. These specialized stores are in decreasing number because the consumption of coffee husk has only been confined to the occasion of Eid-Al-Fitr and Eid-Al-Adhha. Again, only old people have continued to consume coffee husk, while all new comers and young generations prefer tea.

“Only the 'raisins Souk' preserved its tradition and famous reputation in selling a number of commodities that are given as gifts in the religions-ceremonial occasions, and family-gathering celebrations. Still, the consumption of raisins, ground nuts and confectioneries are regarded the main factors for the social activities seen through the visits among relatives and neighbors.

Money exchange and fabrics

In 1971, there were only three money-exchange shops which increased to twenty by 1985. In 1962, the business was controlled by one family called “Beit-al-Qureidi”. At the time of Imam Yehya's death in 1948, the family's business was coffee husk, but later they opened one money-exchange shop in the fabric marketplace.

The money-exchange market throve because of the large-scale immigration of Yemenis to other countries such as neighboring Saudi Arabia. From their new residences, they sent money in foreign currency.

Prior to 1962, the shops of money-exchange business were owned by the fabric traders. Later, they came to be rented to th newcomers from the countryside. The occupation of “al-Aqel” of this Souk was kept preserved for one. In the past, the “fabric market” was the wealthiest one in Old Sana'a . Currently, it continues to be the largest among others. There were in it 130 shops of various textile ranges (silk, cotton, local-fibers etc), together with 22 specialized shops for sale of wool only. Another adjacent location called “Al-Mibsatah Souk” has also been specializing in the wholesaling and retailing of children wears and toys. All together, and till 1985, there were 138 shops of textile and clothing-wears. Since the 1970's, many other shops also opened in the city, which meant to bring about important changes in the social structuring of this Souk.

Gold and silver markets

The workers in this Souk benefited a lot from the rise of marriage-dowry payments, as well as, from the tourism progress. Many who were pre-engaged with silver-making transferred to the gold designing. Since 1972, the number of jewelry jobs have had increased three times. However, the traditions of this work for all those engaged is nearly a very recent phenomena, because these workers came to replace; in the years 1949 and 1950; the Jews, who are regarded the original gold and silver smiths in Sana'a Market.

Since the 1960's two sons of one family specialized in the manufacturing of gold, left behind their expertise in silver. The street stretching from the wall of Old Sana'a city and the new center of Sana'a city began to specialize in gold manufacturing, and its trading. This change from silver to gold manufacturing also spread out the wall of the old city, due to the increasing demand for gold; the increasing amounts of remittances by Yemeni immigrants; and the rise of dowry amounts required by the bride to pay for the bridegroom.

Yemeni daggers and belts market

Industrial making of the handle and head of the “jambia” (dagger) and “asoobs” (belts) is still today considered a profitable business. Those markets, as well, can be taken; on the scale of a national standard; important centers of production which; relative to the two market places in Sana'a; are continuously marketable in many regions of the country.

Mermeir cited his that his countryman Dostal who wrote in the 70s gave an inventory on these two markets in Sana'a. He mentioned the existence of 47 shops for jambia manufacturing in Sana'a, which included fixing their heads, and structuring their hand-touch portions. He also wrote that there were in 1971 some 45 shops for industrial-making of jambia belts. In 1985, the French author counted 44 specialized “workshops” and sale shops of the “jambia”, together with, another fifty engaged solely in producing the belts and “Asoobs”.

Since the last twenty years, or more, the old “Auction bazaar” inside Sana'a Market (of old Sana'a city) was transformed to a continuing extension of this sector. This is a proof on the dynamism of the sector. After 1962, however, the social structure of the “jambia” market had so far witnessed no obvious changes. It remained largely non-altered as other skilled craftsmanship. This might be due to the fact that 89.7% of the working labor had their profession been transferred through inherited fashions i.e. from grandfather to father to son. What may have had affected this social structuring to some extent was really the infiltration, or appearance, of the class of importers.

It was not, however, the new adaptation to the machines for the “jambia” manufacturing. Importing the upper-horned structures and handles of the “jambia” since 1962 gradually caused the closing down of manufacturing their hand-gripping portions in the “Iron smiths” market. Nevertheless, many of these productive sectors do and have had enjoyed autonomous independence, though one may notice a certain deviation in monopolizing this commodity in few hands only. The relationship between the proprietor (business owner) and producer is based on the amount of pay, or wages, rendered. This has been seen as a new phenomena that started to develop fast in the market.

Carpenters markets

For the ” carpenters” sector, the number of shops, or workshops, have had declined from 78 in 1971 to 60 in 1985, though their skilled activities increased during the same period, due to the increasing demand on this sector. Its most important products have been noticed to comprise the wooden doors and windows. This urban expansion throughout Sana'a city have had also caused establishment of workshop out of the market's area. These have since then specialized in the production of furniture households, which were not known before. Since 1974 and on wards, many small-scale and medium-scale carpentry projects evolved in the city. These have depended on the use of new machines that were imported from different parts of the world. In 1974, for instance, there were over 600 workshops using mechanized equipment in Sana'a alone.

The fusion in the market before the Revolution was taking place on the acquisition of perfected skills. The appointed Jewish foremen were using some carpenters in the work that required a pattern of trustworthiness. These Jews were also participating with the merchants of the market in acquiring the professions. The skilled craftsmen who were engaged in cutting the tiles had changed to merchants. Practicing tile cutting was confined to one family house called “Bani Garmooz”. They were permitted to extract the tiles from Ayoob mountain. In another family-house the guardian of the market; known locally “Ameen al-Souk”; there had been one specialized craftsman preparing the wooden structuring of the weighing scales and measures. These have been used until the present day in the markets of “grains”, “al-Mi'tarah” and vegetables & fruits”. However, the timber imported has increased so much after the Revolution, due to the vast expansion in building construction on one hand, and the high cost of local timber on the other.