One of Muscat’s most iconic tourist locations, Muttrah Souq also provides livelihood to many. Spice merchants, antiques sellers, knick-knack shops and street vendors are an integral part of the souq’s old-world charm and attraction.
A five-month closure in 2020 owing to COVID-19 restrictions did little to diminish its draw not just as a tourist hub but shopping destination, too.
The bustling traditional market also affords opportunities to daily-wage earners to offer services not seen in modern malls.
Nizar ul Islam lost his livelihood when his coffee shop closed down; he lived without work for months. When the souq re-opened in August, he started plying a different trade – transporting items on a handcart, known as arbana, for shoppers in the souq.
Pointing at his cart loaded with a mandoos box, a carton and plastic bags, Islam said, “Imagine a shopper having to carry all these from a shop in the souq to their car parked at least a kilometre, may be even 2km, away. Parking is never easily available near the souq.”
The narrow lanes in the vicinity, which are not accessible by car, make the handcarts a lifeline for shop owners and a much-needed service for shoppers.
Islam sourced funds from Bangladesh to pay his sponsor the visa renewal fee. “It is not feasible for me to go back home and start afresh. That is why I have taken a loan and hope things will settle down soon.”
Al Ameen started plying a handcart in the souq some years ago when his employer didn’t clear his salary for over a year. He decided to quit and start operating a handcart service for shoppers in the souq.
“The first thing some shoppers do when they come to the souq is hire a handcart, asking us to follow them while they shop. We carry the items they purchase, load these on our carts and take their shopping to their vehicle,” Ameen said.
Like most other businesses, the pandemic has affected Ameen’s earnings too. Since the souq reopened, his daily earnings have dropped to half as fewer people are visiting the souq.
“Some are hesitant to hire us for fear of the virus,” he said.
“When shoppers approach us, we never demand a fixed price or bargain or ask how long they’ll take to shop. We just follow the shopper patiently and after loading their shopping in their car, we happily accept whatever they pay,” Islam said.
(Photo and text Syed Fasiuddin)