The Evolution of Beirut’s Souk al-Ahad

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Not only has the character of the market changed, but so have the prices for renting a stall space. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Monday, April 15, 2013

Beirut’s Souk al-Ahad, the Sunday Market, has for 20 years been a treasure trove of all imaginable bric-a-brac and second-hand everything, from clothes to electronics to antiques. Recent months have seen the numbers drawn to the market multiply considerably, swelling the entire enterprise with heaving crowds.

Bustling under a highway bridge off Corniche al-Nahr every Saturday and Sunday, the market has two sections: the outside stalls, mostly mats spread with vendors’ various wares, arranged between the columns under the bridge, and, the covered area, where market stalls stand in rows, divided and roofed in by plastic sheets.

The atmosphere is heady with activity as people navigate the hustling and haggling, the air punctuated by shrieks from a group of young men feeding cigarettes to a caged monkey in the tragic pets area.

Last year there were around 30 merchants in the outside area, their mats covered mostly with used household items, antiques, or new knock-off socks. The same vendors held the same spots each weekend. Loose crowds would mill, mostly men, but also some families, taking time to enjoy a session of bartering. Over the last six months, along with the increase in buyers, the number of vendors has also wildly increased. Now, there are nearly 70 stalls outside and the crowds are so thick, it’s often a push to get close enough to a stall to see what is being sold.

After jostling through, it becomes apparent that the available goods have changed in character, too. Nearly every conceivable kind of worldly possession is on display, in varying conditions. Broken archaic laptops, dirty and burnt kitchen utensils, and car insides are lying next to beautiful old books and fine china sets. While this may well be the character of many flea markets around the globe, what is shocking in Souk al-Ahad is the sheer scale and speed of the market’s expansion and the evolution of its contents from mostly obvious commodities to veritable mounds of non-descript wares.

There are piles of clothes or shoes strewn on the floor. On top of one pile, a young child sat screaming that each piece could be bought for LL1,000. Meanwhile, the more established and organized clothing stalls, which import used clothes from Europe, display their merchandise neatly on racks.

Two owners of such a stall, cousins from Beirut who have traded at the market for two years, are quick to say that the market’s changes are mostly due to the influx of refugees from Syria. “Some of them come here because they have no money and are in need of cheap goods, and others are here because they can see that this has created a business opportunity,” the elder one said.

Not only has the character of the market changed, but so have the prices for renting a stall space. A stall that six months ago cost LL50,000 for the weekend now costs LL150,000. According to the vendors, “They just keep raising the prices because of the influx of refugees and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Mounir has had a stall in the market for ten years. Originally from Tunis, he moved to Lebanon 14 years ago. His stall, which used to be inside the market, was well-known for selling good quality, rare pieces of vintage houseware, from lamps to coffee pots. Three months ago he moved from his usual spot inside to a corner outside against one of the bridge’s supporting columns.

“Business has not been going so well recently. I used to sell pieces for LL100,000 or 50,000. Now people don’t have the money for that kind of thing, so I’m selling stuff for 1,000 or 2,000,” he says, gesturing to a pile of worn belts and some tins.

A few meters away, a 35-year old seller, originally from Idlib, Syria has a small table on which he has neatly arranged bottles of scented oils and fake leather wallets. He explained that it was his third week at the market, though he has had a stall in Sabra for three years and lived in Lebanon for five years.

Even for his small table, he has to pay the same LL150,000 rent for the two days. He usually takes between LL150,000 and 300,000, but sometimes not even enough to cover the rental fee. “Still,” he says, “business is better here than in Sabra with there being so many people, and also, there are people coming here that have more money than the people in Sabra and they are more willing to spend it.”

Both he and another young man who sells second-hand clothes say that a lot of the items being sold in the market are things people find in bins. With the sea of wares, from piles of phone chargers to dirty stuffed toys and dolls with no hair or one eye, it’s hard to imagine that there is a market for all of this stuff and that the vendors are able to make enough from sales to cover the stall rent.

Still, often the most bizarre of things are picked up. A woman with several small children barters over a porcelain ornament covered in red hearts, victoriously winning it for LL3,000. An old man deliberates over a plastic photo frame adorned with brightly colored flowers, buying it for LL4,000.

Aazim moved to Lebanon from Egypt 32 years ago and opened an antique stall in Souk al-Ahad in 1990. He bemoans the changes that the market has undergone in the last six months, believing that the conflict in Syria has strongly affected his livelihood.

“Tourists used to come from Jordan and further by land to the market to shop for antiques,” he said. “Now, since the problems, no one is coming to buy antiques. I used to make $2,000 a weekend, now its more like $200-300.”

Aazim feels that the whole purpose of the market has changed. “There used to only be five stalls selling second-hand shoes. There are around 300 of them now.”

Badil, 31, from Qamishli in Syria has run his second-hand women’s clothing stall in the market for five years. “This is a popular market, it’s for people who don’t have enough money to buy their clothes in Hamra. It’s always been a multicultural place, it’s for Lebanese, Syrians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, everyone.”

“People are saying there are more problems with thieves in the market now, but I don’t think it’s the case. There has always been some thieves here, it’s just now there are so many more people coming. There is also talk of more sexual harassment, but surely that just comes with bigger crowds.” While he enjoys the market being so active of late, he says that business has not improved and he is not taking away more money than previously.

Since its inception, Souk al-Ahad has been run by the Chedid family. The authorities have no dealings in the internal affairs of the market and as such there are no regulations to protect the vendors whose livelihoods are based there.

When asked about the huge increase in rental fees for the stalls, Abou Elie Chedid denied any such occurrence and said that anyone stating otherwise is a liar.

His son, Elie Chedid, says that the stalls are priced differently, depending on their size. “A three meter by three meter stall only costs $10 for the weekend,” he assures, contradicting the vendors’ statements.

Currently, the land on which the market is held is being contested for by the Sin al-Fil municipality, who claim that the property belongs to them. They have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to reclaim the land.

According to Elie Chedid, 20 years ago, they were given a 99 year contract by then-minister of energy, Elie Hobeika, a contract that is now being upheld by the current energy minister, Gibran Bassil. “This land belongs to the state, not the municipality, it is none of their business,” added his father. “A thousand families have their livelihoods here,” said Tony Chedid, “People need the market.”

While, according to the vendors, the rental prices are continuing to rise, so too are the numbers of people relying on this venue as an outlet for cheap goods. The swelling influx of refugees has led to people capitalizing on their needs, Souk al-Ahad being just one example of this.

Names have been changed



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