Saudi bazaar gives peep into pre-Islamic Arabia

Visitors got a glimpse at the re-creation of the most famous bazaar in the Arabian Peninsula where Bedouin traders used to bring their goods

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The annual Souk Okaz got under way on Wednesday, allowing visitors to get a glimpse at the re-creation of the most famous bazaar in the Arabian Peninsula where Bedouin traders used to bring their goods, including perfumes, spices, rugs and handicrafts, to sell.

As usual, an array of activities including poetry, theatrical shows, folklore competitions and handicrafts took visitors back to pre-Islamic times.

While touring Souk Okaz, located in the midst of rolling desert plains some 40 kilometers north of Taif, Saudi Gazette met with Mohammed Samman, who is in charge of media and public relations at the festival.

“The 2015 festival was planned in such a way to offer visitors a holistic cultural experience and tell them stories in a compelling, educational and entertaining manner. The festival area has been redesigned to include new elements and activities that seamlessly fuse the traditional with the modern,” Samman said.

“With Souk Okaz festival, we are not just celebrating the souk by itself; we are celebrating the people who have carried the story of Souk Okaz,” he added.

More than 2,000 intellectuals, writers, poets and media personalities from the Kingdom and abroad have been invited to attend the ninth edition of the festival.

Many academics and intellectuals are due to attend, reflecting the importance of this cultural phenomenon that has transcended to become a hub for intellectuals and scholars in the Arab world.

Samman said: “Souk Okaz today represents a unique and important tourism landmark in the Kingdom. It was re-created on the same location where the ancient souk used to be held.”

The event showcases folk dances from different regions of Saudi Arabia, poetry readings, camel rides and food, art and crafts typical to each region.

Mary Smith, a 39-year-old American who works at a major hospital in Taif, spent one day exploring the festival's varied attractions.

She said: "The atmosphere is amazing — the sights, the sounds, the plays, the costumes.

"The festival is exciting not only for Saudis and but for all visitors because it teaches so much about Arab culture.”

The Souk Okaz Avenue allows the participation of a number of artisans to present various types of handicrafts, besides marketing their products.

Artisans who participate in the souk will compete for Okaz Award for Handicraft Creativity, which is devoted to recognize artisans in the Kingdom. The prize, newly instituted this year, seeks to draw attention toward preservation of the national heritage and encourage artisans to continue creative efforts in the field of handicrafts.

This year the avenue is hosting two foreign artisans, one from Bahrain and another from Qatar.

In the middle of the souk is the open-air Okaz Theater, which is considered an important segment of the festival. A theatrical presentation sheds light on how the life of Lubaid Bin Rabiah Al-Aamri, a poet and companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him), in the Jahiliyah (the pagan pre-Islamic era) transformed in the days of Islamic enlightenment.

Mamdouh Salim, producer of the theoretical show, said: "The show, titled “Naqsh min Hawazin” (Impressions from the Hawazin) is presented to honor the famous poet Lubaid Bin Rabiah Al-Aamri with the participation of 50 Saudi and Arab actors supported by 100 volunteers from the local community, who included students of Taif University.”

According to organizers, the 10-day festival is a unique opportunity for enjoying poetry, folk dances, Bedouin art and craft, and lots of shopping.

The Souk Okaz Festival was revived in 2008 by Makkah Emir Prince Khaled Al-Faisal with the support of King Abdullah. Prince Khaled, himself a renowned poet, had said at the time: "Poetry is the history of the Arab.”

This article was firs published in the Saudi Gazette on August 15, 2015.