Hayat al-Bitar was born and raised in the city of Latakiya, until she was married at the age of seventeen and moved with her husband to start their life together in Damascus.
Hayat did well in her studies, despite the responsibilities she’d had to shoulder from the age of thirteen as a result of her mother’s illness. Those responsibilities helped to strengthen her character, as she gained experience in managing a household by learning how to cook, perform handicrafts and navigate the souks.
Hayat’s earliest memory of the souk is a visit at the age of seven accompanied by her father. Together they went to a photo studio so she could pose for a photograph required for her school files. Afterwards, they went to buy her a new pair of shoes for school. Since then, the souks have always been associated with happy memories for Hayat.
Hayat’s father had a small grocery store in the Saliba Souk in Latakiya, where she would stop by almost daily, experiencing the souk and all its sights and sounds. She would also visit the souks with neighbors and friends, discovering new places every time.
Hayat describes the Saliba Souk as one of the old, traditional marketplaces that are characterized by stone archways, similar to those seen in Roman or Church architecture. These archways would act as important landmarks to navigate the labyrinth of the souk. In the middle of the souk was a square known as the “Eid,” or holiday square, surrounded by old houses with stone stairways. During holidays or special occasions children gathered in the square to play games or use the swings or see-saw.
There were various craftspeople who had their goods on display in the Latakiya Souk; you could find everything from sweets, nuts, seeds and vegetables to clothes, carpets, jewelry, textiles and many, many other things, according to Hayat.
Describing the naming of the souks in Latakiya, Hayat says that each alley in the marketplace had its own name, some specific to the goods they specialized in, such as the Daya, Unnaba and Uwayna souks, the Copper souk, the Saliba souk and the Merchants’ souk. There was also the Bazaar area as well as the Fish Market and some other more modern souks.
When she moved to Damascus, Hayat encountered many more new souks, with huge displays, plentiful stalls, and which were highly specialized, Each kind of product or handicraft had its own souk, in comparison to Latakiya, where the souks were tended to be more varied in terms of the products they offered.
Hayat remembers the famous Souk Al-Hamidiyah in Damascus which specialized in clothing, traditional antiques and modern and ancient figurines. She also recalls the silk market, the tailor’s market, Al-Assronyah and Bab al-Sarija which all branched off from Hamidiyah, where various types of food and produce were on sale for reasonable prices.
“Souk Bab al-Hajiya,” continues Hayat, recollecting the Damascus souks, “had stores selling clothes and shoes and traditional foodstuffs, and there’s Souk al-Umara, which sold produce, and Souk al-Hariqa which specialized in clothing and textiles and wholesale goods, while Souk al-Mahkama had textiles and Souk al-Manakhiliya had construction materials and sanitary wares. Souk al-Midan was known for its sweets and traditional foods and the souk for second hand goods was on Thawra (Revolution) Street.”
Hayat talks about the old neighborhoods and historical houses surrounding the souks, with their interior courtyards and fountains and citrus trees, which have become tourist attractions, emblems of the Old City of Damascus. Some of them have been transformed into elegant restaurants, where shoppers and culture seekers can take a break and unwind. This, too, is different from the Latakiya souks, whose restaurants are characterized by their simplicity and communal atmosphere.
Both Latakiya and Damascus, says Hayat, had special weekly markets as well as seasonal markets that would take place during specific times of the year. These always offered discount prices on items and created a festive atmosphere as families from across the socio-economic landscape met and mingled.
In Latakiya, the seasonal bazaars would take place in public parks during spring and the holidays, while in Damascus, the city’s Tishreen Park regularly holds Industry expos for the Food and Gardening sectors. Participants in the latter would display a wide range of plants, flowers and gardening supplies.
Hayat recalls how different souks sell food that is particular to each city. In Latakiya, for example, you’ll find shops selling jazriya, mu’allel, harisah, jawziya, silan, vermicelli kunafeh and kussaba with halawa nafisheh, as well as roving vendors selling nuts, haytaliya and cotton candy—all prepared with local ingredients.
Damascus specializes in barazek, delicate cookies studded with pistachios and coated thickly with sesame seeds, and mahaliya, kishka and foulia. Each city also offers its own take on national dishes, especially with sweets such as baklawa and kunafeh.
“In the old days,” says Hayat, “life was better and simpler. Modernity perhaps encroached a little upon the old souks, but never made them lose their glory or special character.”
Hayat remembers the arrays of clothing styles that could be found on display at the Latakiya souk during her childhood. “You’d see people wearing classic suits and others in traditional Arab dress. Some men wore the shirwal (traditional, billowy trousers). As for the women, a lot of them were quite conservative in their fashions. The older women wore long outer coverings and veils on their heads, while the girls wore long skirts or dresses over pants and were covered with long jackets.”