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The Bab Al-Jabiya market, Damascus (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The Bab Al-Jabiya market, Damascus. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over a century ago, a number of simple local stores were built in the neighborhood adjacent to Bab Al-Jabiya, in the heart of Damascus.

Since then, the market, known for its acceptance of beggars and the poor, has evolved to sell a variety of products, from clothing and shoes to groceries. There have also been restaurants established in the market, once an unknown treat for Syria’s poor.

Known for being cheaper than anywhere else in the city, the Bab Al-Jabiya market draws poor residents of the Syrian capital and visitors from other provinces, thus in inspiring its decades-old nickname: the “Poor Man’s Market.”

A lot has changed in this market in the last couple of months, and with the changes wrought by the violence in Syria, even the Bab Al-Jabiya may now be too expensive for the city’s poorest residents.

Price fluctuations

The voice of a lady resounds through the market, as she haggles with an abaya salesman to lower his price.

She can be heard arguing that the item only cost SYP 400 when she inquired two months ago, and now she is being told it costs SYP 1,000.

The salesman ignores her, turns away to another customer, and replies: “That’s the price ma’am. If you like it, take it. If not, go to the Hamdiya souq or Al-Hare’qa and you’ll find that their price is double ours.”

The fifty-year-old woman leaves, cursing: “To hell with you merchants!”

Hearing her, the salesman replies: “The whole country is changing; our shops are changing too. The rising prices affect us all.”

“But why are we blaming the souq merchants?” sighs Salem Rafa’i, also known as Abu Rashed.

Abu Rashed has owned a small shop selling men’s clothing in the market for just over twenty years.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, he appears frustrated with the rising prices across Syria: “People are being unfair to us. We have to raise prices for our products because we are buying them wholesale at higher prices, so it doesn’t make sense for us to lose out just to sell them cheaper to the homeless. We are not a charity!”

The market’s merchants make a very small profit. But with the country currently in the midst of war and an economic crisis, Abu Rashed insists that “it’s vital that the customers understand that we also need to profit a bit to sustain our own personal and familial needs.”

Al-Jabiya is crowded despite the spike in prices, leaving small shops and major department stores of the southern neighboring district of Bab Sraijeh relatively empty: The “Poor Man’s Market” offers good-quality, high-end products at prices far lower than the franchises found in the more prestigious parts of Damascus.

Several years ago, the mayor of Damascus built a tunnel under the main street, Al-Darwishiya Road, connecting the northern and southern parts of Bab Al-Jabiya and providing Syrians easy access to the souq.

The Bab Al-Jabiya market has been an annual destination for those returning to school, as it sells school uniforms for extremely low prices.

Even these prices, however, have been doubled.

One lady—she calls herself Umm Shadi—was with her son, searching for a low-priced schoolbag for him.

A widow and mother of five, she describes how she used to buy schoolbags for her children for SYP 100. “Now I want to buy one for my boy who is just about to start school, and they want to sell it to me for SYP 500. Can you believe that?”

She carries on in her slow search of the market hoping to find someone to sell her a bag for cheaper.

Prices at the market have risen drastically over just the past year. Within the market, however, each stall offers goods at similar prices, offering no real alternatives.

Hidden history

Bab Al-Jabiya is also known for its buildings dating back to the 1950s. Some are used as homes; others, because of their central location, are used as the headquarters of the finance and health ministries.

Others are registered as protected archaeological sites. These include the Al-Jadeed and Azz Al-Din baths, Azz Al-Din Abu Hamra mosque that was restored 13 years ago, and the Zahed Aash landmark. They have been in Damascus for hundreds of years.

The Zawaya Al-Hunood (Indian corners) mosque, deriving its name from Indian pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem through Damascus during the Ottoman period, appears at the gates of the market. It was re-constructed in 2002 by the late Emirati Ammar Hamd Hamdan Al-Shami.