Shopping at the Friday market

Early last month, we took a Friday morning to drive to the New Kuwait Friday Market. The market is open on weekends only, I believe, and is the place to go if you’re looking for anything from rugs to refrigerators to antiques.

The market covers a massive area and consists of 17 gymnasium-sized open-air structures arranged in almost a large spoke pattern, with mosques located on the property’s four corners. We parked in a giant, dusty (no, I should say, sandy) lot adjacent to the market, also servicing a large grocery store and other big box stores. It took the three of us maybe five minutes to get to the nearest entrance. (It should be noted that Liam was absolutely thrilled to be out spending his “Saturday” morning with his parents instead of parked in front of the TV.)

In American terms, I’d describe the atmosphere as similar to a flea market or antique market, with each “hall” occupied by numerous independent vendors with their own booths. The majority of the shoppers and all of the merchants (at least that I noticed) were male but probably at least 20 per cent of the customers were women. The wares for sale are a hodge podge – a booth with what appeared to be used microwaves across the aisle from a booth with metal lanterns and Aladdin-worthy lamps spread out on blankets on the ground. Walk a few more steps and now you have your pick of track suits on garment racks or, inexplicably, piles of office-style phones, the kind with buttons for putting your caller on speaker for conference calls. Cabinets, couches, beds, workout equipment, shoes, pajamas, toys are all on offer if you wander long enough.

Surprisingly, the sellers are low key. In markets in Vietnam, Cambodia and Bali, the merchants engage with you as soon as you are anywhere near their booth, inviting you to buy and aggressively encouraging you to pick up and handle items. (I remember a Vietnamese seller following me as we walked away, shouting lower and lower figures at my back for a scarf I had touched.) I assumed, here in the Middle East, the same would be true but most vendors ignored us, focusing on their cell phones or engaging in conversations with clusters of other men. We closely eyed candlesticks, lanterns, jewelry, and so forth in relative peace, with no aggressive sales pitches, and moved freely from each structure with no one really paying us any mind.

About mid-morning, the call to prayer began blaring from loudspeakers and men began running past us in the direction of the nearest mosque. We stepped into the sunshine, turned a corner and saw men packed next to each other, outside, praying as a large group. Other men and women throughout the market went about their business as usual.

Eventually, as we wandered, we came to a fabric hall with booth after booth filled with stacks of fabric bolts or yards and yards of hanging fabric. Suiting, silks, patterned cottons – a huge variety of color and textures – greeted us. My late mother was an avid and talented seamstress and quilter; I could just imagine how giddy she would have felt walking through the space.

For me, the hall of carpets was a high point. It’s hard to top the visual sensory overload of essentially an entire warehouse with rugs layered in overlapping stacks on the floor and dividing walls. So many beautiful patterns – rugs with Picasso-like geometrics; others with subtle overlaps of shades of blue like fine watercolors; and, of course, richly dense Middle Eastern patterns with vivid florals pulsating in borders and diamonds. The vendors here were more engaged, saying “welcome, welcome” to Wil and gesturing for us to come closer. They’d rifle through the stacks, folding back layers of layers of rugs to reveal hidden jewels.

We hadn’t prepared properly by taking measurements in our house, but felt safe at least picking out a small, roughly 60 inches in diameter, ornate round rug. Choosing just one was difficult and dizzying; before buying, we had left the hall to wander through other areas of the market while mulling the purchase over and became quite lost trying to find the same shop again when we returned.

Men loitered in blue jumpsuits nearby with dollies – groups of them were everywhere in the market, available to help with transporting purchases – but we’d brought along a 12-year-old who needed to be useful, so we put him to work carrying the rug out. The rug cost? About $35. Wil haggled a little to get the price, but the process was easy going and fast. We have heard there are better places to purchase rugs here—where you can find antique and handmade rugs – but we are pleased with our simple first purchase.

Before leaving, we also bought two tarnished small candelabras and a shiny golden pineapple object—price reduced for group purchase—from one seller and a black lantern with orange, red and green glass panels from another booth. We probably paid a bit too much for the items but at the time of this outing, we had been sitting in a rather empty house since moving in early August. Bare walls and empty shelves can get on your nerves after a while so purchasing anything —anything!—to give our eyes a break from the dullness was on our agenda.

The lantern now perches at the top of a bookcase near our front door and the candelabras have place of honor on our buffet table. Our stuff finally arrived at Thanksgiving, but we shipped only a few decorative items over, so we’re still a bit light on art objects. The soft rug, though, makes my bare toes happy every time I set foot on it and when it came time to display our new petite Christmas tree last weekend, the rug’s welcoming center was the obvious choice.