And a fine one it is too. Travels in Arabia always pique my interest, and a volume teasingly entitled From Souk to Souk had me awaiting publication date. It duly arrived and I was not disappointed.
Robin Ratchford takes us to souks in far off cities. We start in Istanbul, and then he gets a bit more adventurous. Few tourist visas will have been granted for Kabul – he’s been skiing in Afghanistan too – and Baghdad in the last decade, but Ratchford takes us there; Basra too.
And we go off the beaten track, to Yemen and Qatar, exploring and delving into local life through the markets and stalls, places we do not find often in our books, and welcome ones too.
The writing period has been through what we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring, and some of the places we are taken to are now off the radar for a while to come. So an insight to ancient Aleppo is welcome. Byblos too is a rare treat.
Our visits to the souks are more than sight-seeing. Often a local guide will help, but Ratchford has a keen eye for items he’d like to see in his Brussells home. So we engage with stallholders, touching and tasting as we go.
But just when you are looking for more we find ourselves in Dubai, for no reason other than, it strikes me, contrast. I’d much rather be sipping mint tea on a rug than Tanquerey and Sancerre in a night club. At that point I’m longing to head off to pastures new, expecting, say, Jerusalem or those great cities of Iran; Esfahan, Shiraz or Teheran.
We do finally hit the Dome of the Rock, and it’s not in the least surprising to find the cynical side coming through.
Instead of love, tolerance, peace and forgiveness, the city encapsulates and exudes the antitheses of all its protagonists purport to espouse. If there is a God, surely he must despair when he looks down on Jerusalem.
So a bit of a tame ending after the marvels and mysteries that have gone before. Dubai might have been a nice break, but other than contrast the malls of today add nothing to the souks of the past.
I was left too with one other underlying thought. It’s all very male. And of course in many of these places we are very much in a male orientated society, and thus no surprise to find only male guides and drivers. He meets up with friends in distant parts, male too, and we do miss the female touch at times. I don’t expect to get under the abaya so to speak, but a little female perspective may add much. Some of the best books written on male dominated places have been by female writers integrating into the society. That said a quick visit is not integration it has to be said, but…
Ratchford is a fine writer, and a browse through his website suggests he has much more for us up his well-travelled sleeve. I look forward to expanded writings on his trips to Khartoum; to comparing Sudan’s whirling dervishes with those of Istanbul perhaps; and to paddling in the dust of the Aral Sea. Now if he can get to Esfahan….