Al-Balad, Jeddah’s old city, is well-known for its numerous markets where abayas, gold, spices, perfumes — each one more exciting than the other — can be found. Salem Bakar is the shop owner of one of the small stores in the gold market. Yemeni by origin but Saudi by heart, he is a short 56 years-old man with a kind face. He has stood behind the counter of this same small shop for the past 38 years, selling all kinds of prayer beads (masabeh in Arabic), silverware, gems and jewellery. Salem’s vast knowledge of Jeddah, with its long and winding history, makes him one of the guardians of the memory of al-Balad, and one of the most fascinating people you are likely to meet there.
Yemeni by origin but Saudi by heart, he is a short 56 years-old man with a kind face.
Salem stands out in the souk, negotiating prices and joking around in French with a Senegalese client about the rather diminutive height of the country’s last two presidents, Diouf and Wade. He has travelled the globe in a quest for the best stones (among other countries, he has been to China, Thailand, India, Yemen, Egypt, South Africa, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia) and he caters to a wide range of — from rich Saudi businessmen to pilgrims as well as the odd Western tourist. He has thus become an excellent polyglot, as he speaks perfect Italian, Greek, English and French, as well as snippets of Spanish, German and Russian, all of which he has learned by himself. His only regret is not having gone to Brazil.
Salem stands out in the souk, negotiating prices and joking around in French with a Senegalese client about the rather diminutive height of the country’s last two presidents, Diouf and Wade.
He speaks passionately about his trade, giving an endless enumeration of the origin of each type of rock used for the prayer beads, that goes on for tens of minutes. He has a variety of stones of all prices, starting with those made of tree resins (like olive, cedar, oak, and pine trees), bones of animals and sea corals, ranging to semi-precious and precious stones like rubies, emeralds, true pearls and so on. The masabeh are usually made of 33, 66 or 99 beads. The prices range between SR 2 (53 cents) and SR 2,500 ($667). Salem has many interesting stories about how the prayer beads are produced and why certain materials are used: “Do you know why black coral (yusr) is said to give birth?” he asks with an amused gaze. “This type of bead peels off if it’s kept the way it is. That is why craftsmen add silver, which works as a protective skin, and prevents the yusr from giving away small peels.”
He speaks perfect Italian, Greek, English and French, as well as snippets of Spanish, German and Russian, all of which he has learned by himself. His only regret is not having gone to Brazil.
“There are some weird people out there,” Salem joked. While some ask him for simple things like cigarettes or perfume, others have more odd requests. Like the guy who wanted to buy 10 beads from a masbaha made of 66. “Can you believe this? What would I do with the 56 others? Ridiculous.” Once in the 1980s, he got a meteorite which was sold directly for SR 500,000 (around $130,000). In addition to that, he shows a SR 1 silver coin which was used decades ago. It now serves to pay a bride’s dowry: an old SR 1 coin is nowadays worth SR 43. Other old coins cost as much as SR 1,000, so 30 or 40 of these are sometimes offered for the wedding, which is more elegant than paying with banknotes.
Salem is like a living history book about Jeddah and the city’s development.
Salem is like a living history book about Jeddah and the city’s development. He describes when, in the 1930s, the first supermarket in Jeddah opened its doors. To make sure of the dates, he asks his neighbouring shop owners, and then continues the story. A Greek merchant named Yani Kontodollo came by sea and started this commerce. The supermarket, which closed in 1968, used to sell mostly cheese, and introduced the then exotic kashkaval to the market. According to Salem, there were a lot of expatriates in al-Balad at that time: entrepreneurs, engineers and workers to build the railroad, Jeddah’s port, palaces, roads or simply houses. The city was entering the modern era.
Unlike many people out on Jeddah’s streets, Salem gladly accepts to be photographed. He shows a magazine in which he appears with all his pearls and prayer beads. Then, he asks the neighbour facing his shop to step aside so that him and his shop will look their best on the pictures. “People should know that Saudi Arabia is not just about what is said in the news. There are other things here than the niqab. There’s culture and history. Also, we’re here!” With that, he offers me a beautiful burgundy masbaha. Mashallah.