Roll Up! Roll Up! For The Globe Souk Experience
IslamOnline.net By Zahrah Awaleh

As I entered the Globe Souk[1], a replica of a traditional Arabian market, the absolute noise was the first thing that hit me. I was overwhelmed by this frenzy of activity located in the basement hall of the Globe Exhibition Center in London. The lack of natural light and the low orchestrated artificial lighting gave it an evening atmosphere and almost twisted one’s concept of time. One could easily lose oneself here. So much was happening in such a small space, yet everything was set out perfectly proportioned, like a chocolate box—all I had to do was choose the first tantalizing morsel.

The Souk was packed with visitors, stalls, a Peter Saunders exhibition, a gallery of exhibits from The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and a café. I didn’t know where to start in this cave-like dream of a souk. However, my son’s irritation informed me that I’d better feed him his lunch first before embarking on my whirlwind tour. So, when I saw the Qur’an reciter’s Moroccan seat was vacant, I promptly sat myself down to feed my son his lunch of miniature cheese sandwiches. This was to the surprise and delight of passers-by, who may have thought me slightly audacious, or may have envied me for getting there first!

With baby fed and reunited with his father and elder sister, I was left to briefly indulge myself in The Globe Souk experience. On offer were lush dark blue and green glass hookahs (tall water pipes to burn fruit-flavored tobacco), for those who wanted to rekindle memories of smoking them in an old café in Cairo, Tunis, or Fez. There were the ubiquitous frames filled with modern and traditionally styled Arabic calligraphy, as well as Moroccan lanterns and lamps, lit up to add to the authentic atmosphere. In front of the stage was a wide selection of delicious Lebanese sweets and savories, which I was fortunate enough to sample. I must say, the rose water in the sweets was extremely fragrant, making them highly delectable. Opposite, was the Palestinian General Delegation’s sea of blue Palestinian ceramic ware, and wooden pieces that included a chess set and a model of the holy city of Jerusalem.

I managed to escape into the gallery of traditional art exhibits for a few moments. The tent canopy over it kept out most sound, making it an oasis of peace surrounded by the cacophony of voices and perpetual movement. The pieces consisted of mainly geometric shapes created in mediums of ceramic, paint, and wood, which were framed and hung. There were pictures of a Jesus figure, and elsewhere a calligraphy piece of Allahu Ahad (Allah is One), painted white on a black background. The other exhibits were just as eclectic. Another I viewed was a selection of poems dedicated to various religious subjects, written in old English script and with miniature watercolor pictures set beside the verses.

Rezia Wahid creates exquisitely fine hand-woven textiles using a contemporary loom. She is part of a new boom in the East London arts scene and is based in the Cockpit Arts Studios. Her loom reminded me of antique looms, and I was sure it would have felt at home in a museum. Rezia was, nevertheless, very proud of her elegant workhorse and, more importantly, of the beautiful results—fine pure silks and mixed silk and Egyptian cotton, hand-woven textiles for clothing or frames. One piece with a blue border was homage to the famous Turkish blue found mostly in Iznik ceramics, which were also on offer in the Souk.

As I was chatting to someone I hadn’t seen for years, a man in front of me dressed in a thawb (Arab men’s long garment) shouted “stop thief!” making me jump out of my skin. I thought there had been a genuine mugging, but it turned out to be a lively start to another of the Khayaal Theatre Group’s Souk Stories, on show at the stage besides the stalls. Phew!

Clive Rogers deals in oriental rugs from Central Asia and the Near East. He also sells embroideries, shawls, pictures, and furniture from the two regions. He had a particularly elegant pine and cedar chair from Damascus with exquisite mother of pearl inlay that is circa 1890.

I also got chatting to Farrah Irfan, who is the director of her own clothing company for Pakistani women. She specializes in silk and chiffon outfits, handmade embroideries and shawls, and Afghani handicrafts.

The ringing of a bell breaks up the continuous hustle and bustle to announce the next show of Souk Stories, and some people start to head for the stage. I head for the Peter Saunders exhibition, but I end up detouring to a stall with Chinese-Arabic calligraphy by the hand of one Haji Noor Deen. He is a Chinese Muslim who has a unique style of combining Chinese script with Arabic in various ways on paper scrolls. I observed an astonishing piece that read “I love Muhammad” in Chinese, but that contained the Shahadah (the Muslim Testimony of Faith) inside it in a tiny feathery Chinese-like Arabic script, which seems to be his signature style. At the top was written Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim, which is Arabic for “In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful,” in a geometric style, but not Arabic; he explained that it was more Chinese than Arabic. Another piece was the more familiar rendition of the ninety-nine names of Allah in Arabic, with a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) below it: “It is reported by Abu Hurayrah that whoever memorizes the ninety-nine Names Allah will enter Paradise.”

Before I could discuss anything else about his work with Haji Noor Deen, I had to leave as the Souk was closing. On the stage, there was an auction of the stage props and the seat that I had previously rested upon, the crowd was getting excited and was going nowhere. So much for home time!

If you are interested in contacting any of the stallholders mentioned in the article, please see below:

Rezia Wahid: info@woven-air.com

*Zahrah Awalah holds a BA in Arabic language and an MA in Islamic studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She resides in London with her husband and two children. You can contact her at z_awaleh@yahoo.com