The Old Bazaars are the real places…not malls


Anarkali is a fascinating place that stands out as the character of Lahore. PHOTO: ABID NAWAZ

I remember the first time I went to a mall; it was way back in 1977. The place was called Brent Mall. Hindsight tells me it was not too big and probably inconsequential, but it looked huge and I hated it.

It was a sanitised place of shopping, crowd dressed every which way to impress, straight lines, homogeneous construction, and uniformity of thought. No culture or creativity.

Today, commencing from USA, expanding to Europe, Middle East and now Asia, the mall is the ‘in’ place. It’s a destination, where you can spend the day. shop, eat, snack, have coffee, watch a movie and even go skiing in one instance! The functionality appeals, but its bourgeois lack of character, well in line with modern day living, really palls and one wishes for the old markets.

I was brought up on such fare and it is in the character created by these old markets that we thrived. Even on my travels around the world, I’ve seen that some of the most striking places in modern cities are these ethnic markets which bring out the character and culture of the people and shed light on their values. So, I have tried to recall some of these experiences over the years.

Empress Market:

It was the queen of traditional markets – my childhood was spent shopping here. The smelly meat market, great kiryana stores, the pet market, fruit places and more than that, the feel of the place was just surreal. The Gothic-looking architecture is fabulous! I even remember various English memsahibs (ladies) who used to shop here early in the morning.

Bohri Bazaar:

Bohri Bazaar is a place that answers all the needs of Karachiites. I believe the market caught fire in the 50s and had to be rebuilt. They had clothes, toys, books and specifically delicious nimco! It is God’s gift to Karachi, to be visited once a month. Alas, Tariq Road and Hyderi took customers and this market lost its importance.

Sadly, I haven’t been there in years!

Sunday Bazaar Karachi:

This is a place where you go, to find that elusive Noritake which you pick in bits and make a collection. You get great bargaining. Fruit and vegetables are all available below the retail market prices. It’s given its character by the endless workers who tag along carrying your goods for a minuscule price and guide you to all the secret goodies.


Now I am not an expert, but Anarkali has that smell and traditional feel – like a wrapped piece of velvet, taken out after decades. It is archaic and redundant now, but grand nevertheless! For some reason, I associate glass bangles and food with Anarkali, though it houses many items. This fascinating place stands out as the character of Lahore.

Quincy Market, Boston:

Here, you can find food of all sorts and people of all sorts too. You are better off roaming in the market on foot as you get a bigger choice. There is music too, which makes the experience even more enjoyable.

I have a lovely memory of a beautiful afternoon, a quarter of a century ago. I think it was summer. A juggler was performing, and I stood watching, biting into an extremely chunky sub, loaded with beef.

I salivate at the memory.

No sanitised mall can provide the sort of experience I witnessed at this market.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul:

At the Grand Bazaar you can buy almost everything, barring a car. This must be the grandest bazaar around. 3,000 shops of all kinds, haggling, and lots of people buying carpets, ceramics, gifts, ornaments, clothes, spices, dates – you name it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to visit the place and the women go absolutely gaga when they go to this bazaar to shop. A few hours of roaming and watching all the haggling and people is an experience in itself.

Petticoat Lane:

My first experience at Petticoat Lane goes back to 1978. I had these delicious, freshly fried sugar-coated doughnuts – piping hot! At the time, I was a student and had very little money to indulge in the trendy clothing available, but there were second hand book stalls.

Sundays used to be crowded and you had to push along watching for pickpockets. I’m not sure if it’s still the same, but it was bordering some seedier parts of London, so I expect that not much has changed.

The real tragedy is that hyperstores demolished the high street market – the small corner shop, newsagent, barber, butcher, veggie man, the pharmacy and such. All the years of familiarity and personal touch were gone at the altar of commercialism. Man has lost depth in life to a corporate existence, flush with glitz and so called glamour.

There are other markets which I have visited and, of course, many more places which others would know. In Singapore I remember buying a quaint Sukarno cap, from an Indonesian market. Lagos is a memory of a shoe purchase from a set of shacks which qualified for a local market. In the Middle East, the old wholesale markets sell below large stores prices and also give you Turkish coffee.

The universal language of hospitality prevails.

The traditional markets are a memory and identity of a world where humans interacted on a personal level and warmth existed amongst strangers – whatever caste or creed.

Alas, it is a world lost!

Read more by Sarfaraz here or follow him on Twitter @sarehman

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This blog appeared in The Express Tribune earlier this year.


God works in mysterious ways

October 28, 2012

“Have you ever lost a home? I had a home and land. 2010 floods washed away the house and spoilt the land. I left my family at the village and came here.” PHOTO: AFP

As you drive down the road connecting Zamzama with Khayaban-e-Shujaat, you come across a market, at the border of Defence and Clifton Cantonment. The road itself winds down into Shujaat and if you are of the ilk, it shall take you down to the Sunday Bazaar in Defence Phase VIII.

In front of this market are a set of fruit and vegetable thela walas (street vendors), lined up against the wall of Zamzama Park. That section of the road is peppered with cars buying fruits according to their purchasing power. Inside the park, oblivious to their proximity, a legion of affluent people jog daily, unaware of the economic struggle ongoing just ten yards away. For this is the place of squeezing out a marginal existence, with no room for error in the thela walas life.

Even in that tough environment, there are three thelas that lie vacant. Sometimes for periods before Eid, beggars occupy these thelas at night. Recently, on a late evening, I stopped to have a conversation with one such beggar. The story he told is related below.

“Have you ever lost a home? I had a home and land. 2010 floods washed away the house and spoilt the land. I left my family in the village and came here. Allah’s (SWT) great trial is on us; there are no jobs here even among crores of people. My money soon finished and I ate at the lunger (charity food shelter) and slept on the road. One day some good soul gave me food and that’s when it came to me that I can beg.  Do you understand how low one falls, to beg? Imagine how I felt the first time I spread my hands out to another human? But even in begging there is a system. I had the protection of a Dada (beggar mafia leader) and he took my money. There’s not much you can do about it, unless you want problems… but I missed my family and had no money to go back.”

“I begged the Dada and he allowed me to bring my family, if I paid daily for them. I was desperate and they came. But the Dada wanted them to beg. I said no, so he threw us out. Saeen, I could not see my family on the road. We were respectable small farmers and never without a roof. So I went back. He said all my family will beg and if I pay him enough, he will find me space to live. In the meantime, he has deposited us here. My poor family does not understand, but every day they go out to beg. My wife cries at night and my baby boy, seven-years-old, he goes and begs at a crossing. How would you feel if your son was sent out to do this? Is dignity even not my right? You eat expensive stuff and drive big cars, yet my boy makes Rs100 a day and we give away Rs50 of that to the Dada. At the end of the day, the boy gets a roti (bread) and daal (pulses) to eat. So where is the justice in this?  I cannot even pray, as I am not clean; don’t have clothes and a place to wash. So even my right of prayer to Allah (SWT) is gone! Who is going to answer for that?”

Completely distraught, I just stood there.

My mind starting thinking of what I could do to help was there anything I could do to help? There was no point in donating money because the Dada would take it and the family would be back to square one. I am ashamed to say that at the time, my mind could not work out a solution.

No place for further servants meant that I could not house them.

No immediate vacancy for a job occurred to me.

I think we have become emasculated by the norms of present day society, or maybe too absorbed in our own narrow existence! So I said,

“Wait for a day or so and I shall come back with an answer. Maybe I can get you a job so that you could move your family and once you are employed and out of the clutches of your leech, I can support you with financial aid also.”

Feeling a bit better, I went home, spoke to my family and some semblance of a plan formed in our minds. We thought of moving them back home and aiding them in setting up from scratch. Alas, our lives are full of good intentions, which never quite come to fruition.

A couple of extremely urgent deadlines meant that I could not go back till the day after. When I went back, the thela was empty and the family gone.

Such chagrin as I felt then was not comparable.

I had been tested, called on and had not come up to scratch.

How was I ever going to justify this to myself and Allah (SWT)?

I had no answers.

And so, Eid day dawned and I went for prayers.

After the Eid namaaz I saw the man, in cleaner clothes, coming out of the mosque, following a sahib. I asked about his whereabouts. He said,

“Two days ago an angel of a woman stepped out of her large jeep and asked me my story. When I told her, this woman instructed her driver to collect the family and bring them to her house.”

Now they reside in her servant quarter. His wife does cleaning work and he does gardening and the children will go to school.

Alhamdulillah, miracles never seize to amaze. God truly does work in mysterious ways, miracles do happen and good humans still exist. I wished him and his sahib an Eid Mubarak, told him to thank Allah (SWT) and gave him my contact in case he needed it.

As I walked to my car, I felt as if there is light yet in this world and that there are possibilities for everyone. Good, loving humans renew this human spirit.

May there be many such endings.

Please let’s all of us do our bit of good. This world will be a better place for it.

Eid Mubarak!

Read more by Sarfaraz here or follow him on Twitter @Sarehman

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