We stepped inside the intricate alleys of the old Beirut Souks, back when stalls piled with fruits, flowers and fabrics animated the city. Come along in the Beirut of the 60s.
Dozens of porters were lined up carrying large straw baskets on their back held with straps that they would tie with a string. When a client would wave at them that they were ready, they would begin to pile up groceries in those enormous containers. Our grocery list was long and we started with the fruits and vegetables market, the most colourful one, but also the messiest with peels piling up cracking on the floor under our feet. It was also called Souk el Nourieh in reference to a small centuries old chapel. Once weighted and packed in brown paper bag, the sumptuous products were placed in the basket in a well-defined order; from weighty potatoes at the bottom to the lighter strawberries on top.
On rainy days, our mom would leave us with one of her favorite shopkeepers while she went about to find her groceries jumping from one souk to the next, sparing us the walk in the humid weather. We waited there, slightly anxious but also captivated by the atmosphere, the colours, the smells. Speaking of smells, the fish souk comes to mind, with its central gutter where water, used to rinse the stalls, was flowing, while street cleaners in black rubber boots busied around. The odor was terrible but the fish were so magnificent and abundant that we would never want to miss the Saturday morning outing to the souks. If we’d behaved, a fresh lemonade from the ‘birkeh’ was our reward. Not to mention the unforgettable stop by Souk Abou Nasr with its luscious platters of candies, sweets and spices.
Once the groceries were done, the basket overflowed with victuals. My mother gave the address of our house to the porter and we went back to wait in the calm of our car. Sometimes we would pass by Souk el Woukieh to purchase fabric. My mother would drop by the meat market and the poultry one, or roam around at the more upscale Souk el Franj with its appetizing butcher shop windows. The souk was a feast for our eyes and we relished those escapades to the heart of the city bustling with people and piles of merchandise.