Usually, the lifestyle after Ramadan tends to be lethargic and sleepy for atleast a month. During Ramadan, the whole country basically stays up all night and sleeps at daybreak till afternoon. So coming out of this “jetlag” is quite a task. However, Saudi seems to have taken this as a challenge head-on and organized so many festivals and events around the country that people are forced out of their reverie and get going!
One of the most popular events of the year is Souq Okaz. This event is being held since the past 10 years. However, this year it has received the hype it much deserved. Souq Okaz originally dates back to pre-islamic times, dating almost 1500 years back. This was an active market and a gathering for many tribes in the whole Arabian region. It started in 542 AD and lasted for almost 200 years, till 726 AD before being destroyed by rebels of those times. This was a place which brought together traders, poets, tribal chieftains, language and grammar experts and led them into discussions to form the rules pertaining to different tribes, formalize language, define code of conduct etc. A lot of sporting events were also held as means of entertainment. The site for this souq was recently re-discovered and since then, the souq trend is being continued in an effort to re-capture the essence of history.
This event is located at a 3-hours’ drive from Jeddah. So we decided to utilize our weekend for this. By the time we reached there (5 in the evening), the parking was already starting to fill up. Such is the attraction of Souq Okaz. From the parking, we were led to a bus that took us to the main entrance of the event located at a 3 minute drive. As we got down from the bus, the sight completely mesmerized us. It is huge place! We were a bit confused where to start it all from. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a volunteer came before us and started talking in fluent Arabic giving us directions. Although, we couldn’t understand a word of what he said, his actions were pretty effective in getting across the message, LOL!
So basically, we had to start with getting in Tent 1 and proceeding into Tent 2 and then moving on towards the rest of the festival. In front of the tents, was the whole Saudi armada in all its glory. Tanks and jeeps and fighter planes and you can even go inside them! The sight of all this bought out the child in T and he was literally jumping around to get in one. But the line of real children to get inside was quite long as such. So he came back with a dejected face :P.
Inside Tent 1, there was an exhibition of the current and ancient weapons ever used by the Saudi forces. These weapons included rifles, pistols, machine guns, missiles and so many other things that I couldn’t even recognize. And if you ask nicely, they even let you hold one! Too good to be true, right? All the equipment of the army, bomb disposal, gas masks, firemen was all there. In the Tent 2, there were uniforms and drones and other similar devices of each defence segment. There was also a medical and drug awareness area.
As we got out of the tent, a parade started. The sight was so spell-binding and it made me unbelievably proud to be a part of this country (you can watch the video of the parade on my Instagram @theexplorercouple). We moved on towards the main hub. Suddenly out of nowhere, a caravan seated on their camels came in our way (check out the main image on top). Well, that stopped us right in our tracks; and got us busy with our cameras! As we moved on, we realized that this event was so perfectly organized. There was a track in the centre where the different shows and stunts took place. And on both outer sides, there were shops selling arts, crafts, souvenirs and food. That way, you couldn’t miss anything as everything was right there on a single track.
The stunts were literally mind-blowing! There were men dressed in garb from the bygone era riding on a horseback and picking up burning sheets from the sand with their swords (Again, check my Instagram for videos). Other stuntmen rode standing on a horseback, or picking up a scarf from the ground, or cutting a teeny tiny apple hanging from a pole! There were whole teams to take care that no accidents take place because of the fire etc. Then there were men just roaming in the crowds, dressed like that, mingling with people. It seemed as if their time-travelling machine had finally worked and they landed here, right in the midst of the crowd in the 21st century!
There was even a story telling scene, where a man narrated the whole story while the other actors enacted it. All with horses and swords and the real things! There were proper amphitheatres for the public to sit and watch these shows as well. I could only marvel at the efforts made to organize the event and see it executed so well.
As you walked by, on both sides, there were stalls of utensils, mementos, art and paintings, frames, live calligraphers who would write your name at your request etc. There were separate areas for each Arab country as well. We saw local artisans selling clay pots, straw baskets, hand-woven wall hangings, carved and decorated boxes of every siize, lamps and so many teeny tiny souvenirs and mementos from Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Such a pleasing experience! And the price too was quite nominal. I got some earthenware for cooking from the Yemeni section (I love that cuisine!) for under SR 100.
Also, there were Saudi families who displayed their crafts and hand-made clothes, wall-hangings, wooden art, portraits etc. The display of talent was quite encouraging to the sellers as well as the buyers, as the things to be seen there are not easily available in any market, especially at those prices! Souq Okaz provided the ultimate morale boost for people owning small businesses and more importantly, ladies, who work from inside their homes and have only word-of-mouth for their publicity. One interesting thing to note was that all the shops contained hand-made things – be it dresses or carpets or paintings or utensils. It literally seemed like a market from the days of yore where people actually sold the exact same things, probably designed and made in a different style though!
Of course, children can’t be left far behind! There was a plethora of activities for children. There were of course the armada of tanks, jeeps and fighter planes where the children could go inside their armoured vehicles, like I mentioned above, and the volunteers from the army would describe for them each equipment that they saw. Apart from this, there were parks, playgrounds, mimicry artists, calligraphers who wrote their names as a souvenir, even an equestrian school!
After walking so much, our feet were sore and our stomachs empty. So we decided to look at the food tents. There were also the usual food chains serving chicken broast and burgers etc. But we chose to try out the Saudi cuisine prepared by the local Saudi families. After perusing the stalls, we took some Jareesh and some whole wheat pancakes served with ghee and honey (Sorry! I forgot its name). We also got a whole wheat flatbread (Fatir, I think) that was made on coals and served topped with honey.
There was an enormous theatre as well which was supposed to be the highlight of the event. Alas, we were so tired and almost on the verge of crawling instead of walking (we were travelling since the night before! So no judging please :P). Plus, we had all the weight in our hands due to my compulsive shopping behaviour. So we chose to head to the bus and onward to the parking.
Overall, as per my opinion, the 11th festival of Souq Okaz succeeds in capturing the life as was prevalent during those times. If you can, then please do not miss this marvellous experience. Souq Okaz will last till 22nd July, 2017. So you still have one more week to visit before it disappears for another year!