Shopping in Syria

Posted on June 17, 2009

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Let’s ignore the global financial crisis for a while, and pretend we actually have money. The natural reaction is to go on a shopping frenzy. This makes perfect sense, because despite calls from financial advisers and ethicists to cut down on spending or worse, eliminate conspicuous consumption altogether, it’s hard to deny that shopping makes us happy. What do you do after getting fired or finding yourself unemployed for the last 6 months? Go out and buy something of course, if only to avoid the looming depression.

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Dubai has often been promoted as the shopping mecca of the Middle East. I find this is only true if you have the salary of the Hiltons or the Beckhams. For the rest of us who can only afford to fantasize about living the glamorous life, the most we can do is window shop. The truth is, when it comes to shopping in Arabia, you’re better off in Syria. Years of being relegated to international pariah status has meant that it has largely escaped the onslaught of giant shopping malls seen everywhere else in the region. Instead, shoppers throng through medieval bazaars spread across labyrinthine alleyways, studded with discrete nooks and corners for the curious consumer intent on an expedition as much as scoring a bargain.

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Getting a bargain in Syria is an art in conversation, requiring polite banter, a little bit of deception and mutual respect between buyer and trader. In one of the embroidery shops we bargained our way through a cup of strong Arabic coffee provided by the hospitable owner. Having been accustomed to stationary SALE! signs in Malaysia and Australia, I was initially reticent at having to be an active participant in our mission to get a discount. After a couple of attempts though, you start to get the hang of it and haggling suddenly becomes a thrilling revelation. The shopping mall experience of getting your desired item and handing it over to the cashier for scanning now seems passive and sterile in comparison. I guess it’s a bit like comparing between hunting for food and buying it from the supermarket – the latter is more convenient but oh what joy it is to do it the old fashioned way and chase after your meal.

Having said that, just when I finally gained enough confidence to try to haggle without the help of my mum, none of the traders would even move to give me a discount! So just a tip for all the guys out there, if you intend to shop, always bring a female companion with you. Unfortunately gender discrimination against men is still a widespread problem in bazaars and flea markets across the world, and for now I can only dream of a day when all men can haggle independently without the help of their womenfolk.

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Posted in: Syria