The 5am alarm wakes me reluctantly from my slumbers. I rise, gather my camera and purse and try to open my eyes. The welcome smell of Arabic coffee wafts its way through from the majlis; my host has been working for ages, boiling up ghawa, karak tea and making delicious omelets for breakfast.
Stepping into my car I notice the sun appearing on the Eastern horizon and I steer towards the dawn. A Toyota pickup driver toots his horn as he passes me, is this someone I know or just an Omani being friendly to a driver bearing an Abu Dhabi numberplate? A few more pickups pass me, some with black and brown goats as their cargo, for it is Thursday morning at 0530hrs and all roads lead to Sinaw Souq.
This is my second visit to the biggest traditional souq in Oman and having arrived early at 0630hrs I park carefully a few hundred metres from the main market; last time I parked right at the market and was blocked in for an hour by a goat farmer’s truck! The minute I open my door I am assaulted by mixture of smells; more ghawa, spicy food, fish and livestock; the noise from the market is not overly loud but you are immediately aware that a huge gathering of people is under way.
Starting at the southern end of the main souq area I enter the gates, all the time dodging camels which are being led in to the market. I continue up the east side, stopping to watch the auctioneers drum up business for the camel sales, and pause to look at the Omani ladies handcrafts on the other side of the street.
The market soon becomes gridlocked with a hundred farmers taking their goats in from the north entrance for sale, soon the queue spills out of that gate and the gridlock spreads to the streets of Sinaw. Dozens of pickups, many driven by ladies wearing the traditional Omani burka and abaya, await their turn, but many buyers walk up the line of Toyota Pickup trucks in search of a bargain, grabbing the backs of the goats to see how much meat is on them. It is only four days before the holy month of Ramadan and although daylight fasting is strictly observed, evening hospitality is all-important and most families will have many guests to feed.
Outside the northern gates many animal feed sellers congregate, offering alfalfa hay by the bundle; some buyers will collect by pickup truck and others will use a porter with a wheelbarrow to take their purchase to their car. One speaks English well and enquires where I am from, how did I find the market and why am I wearing a bedu dress!
Returning to the main circle of the souq I pass date vendors selling their wares in huge buckets as well as unusual sacks created from palm fronds. Moving on I find a pickup truck full of juicy tomatoes, all grown in Oman, and on the other side of the street a huge range of produce including lemons, bananas, capsicums and carrots.
Further down a line of Toyota pickups with fridges on the back are parked up, a sure sign that there is fish for sale nearby, and I am not disappointed, we are after all, less than one hour from the sea. Tuna, shark, hammour and all manner of fish are lying on ice waiting for a buyer. Stalls with dried fish are aplenty, after all, less than 50 years ago Oman had no blacktop roads and fresh fish would have been a novelty in the vast inland areas of the Sultanate, so dried fish became a staple of the Omani diet.
There is a buzz coming from a covered area in the centre of the block and as I step up to a hall about 50 metres square I find goats, sheep and caves for sale, tied up with yellow string to the benches. Local people are sitting here too including old men with lined faces and married woman in traditional clothes, all chatting to each other; this market is not only about buying and selling, it’s the best chance of the week to pass on “the news.”
I found myself walking round the market a few times since I did not want to miss anything, and on my second pass by I stopped to buy some hand-woven keyrings. The handcraft ladies sit on mats in the shade, chatting with each other while their fingers work their magic with goat hair “wool”, creating more stock to sell. I sit down next to a mum and her teenage daughter, Anhar. The young lady speaks excellent English and explains they are here for the day from their home in the Wahiba Sands; these are true Bedu women. I peruse the keyrings on offer all the while plucking up courage to ask where I can buy a traditional Omani Burqa like her Mum’s.
Within seconds a selection appears and Anhar explains how the full-face mask is the really traditional one and older ladies still wear it now; I try it on and get big smiles from the ladies but I have to confess it feels a little claustrophobic. She then shows me a modern one which covers less, and I confess to liking it much more! Two men wearing mussars and dishdashas have been standing at the outside of our little circle giving me the thumbs up; I ask my new friend if these men are her uncles or brothers, but she laughs and says no, these are just two men who were passing the stall!
The souq is not just confined to the main market square as there is a huge covered area where local ladies have set up stalls selling clothes, fabrics and haberdashery and nearby there is a section offering homewares from colourful kitchen trays through to sofas upholstered in traditional red striped bedu fabric.
Sinaw Souq is contained, or should I say, tries to contain itself, in a rectangle of buildings housing all manner of shops, including clothing, footwear, jewelery and “saws and cutlery.” Most of these shops are not open during the early morning when the souq is active, so it may be worth staying until mid-morning to explore them.
By 8.30am the market is starting to wind down, all the finest camels have been sold and only a few lesser specimens remain. After such an early start it was time to return to Adam for a shower and to catch up on some sleep.
This market is the most “real” rural Omani experience you can have, all the sights, sounds and smells in one place; very few tourists venture here but the Omani people are friendly and call out greetings as you pass by.
When you visit, it is important to dress modestly. You should wear full length trousers (or a long skirt/dress if you are a lady, or a dishdasha if you are a man), and a top which comes up to the neck and down to your elbows. For comfort and modesty, loose clothes are best.
All transactions at the market are by cash but there are a few banks with ATMs nearby. There is a petrol station and a huge Lulu supermarket on the edge of town. Travel time from Adam is 40 minutes (59kms) and from Muscat 2 hrs 10 minutes (179kms).