The heartrending news of the Late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s demise sent shock waves among traders in Old Muttrah Souq, the most popular tourist locale in the capital.
As the news spread, they downed their shutters and congregated in groups to offer community prayers for the repose of the soul of the nation’s beloved leader.
Shopkeepers in this souq, which is not just the most popular tourist haven in the sultanate but also one that is symbolic of a bygone era when most economic and trade activity revolved around old Muscat, said the least they could do as a mark of respect was not set up shop for the day.
Despite the fact that this is peak tourist season and the time when most shopkeepers make good earnings, they voluntarily kept their shops closed from Saturday to Tuesday, during the official period of state mourning.
The flow of tourists from Europe has now resumed now and Muttrah Souq is again buzzing with activity, although shopkeepers conceal their common grief and welcome tourists with a smile.
“We were totally shocked. My whole family sat together and we shed tears like little children. This was a big loss, a big blow for all of us – we loved our dear Sultan Qaboos too much,” said Akhtar al Balushi of Ali Baba Gift Town, whose family owns 12 shops in the souq.
“Sultan Qaboos had done so much for all citizens of Oman. We have no words to express our grief at his passing away. We pray that the Almighty Allah grant him eternal rest and paradise for his benevolence towards his nation.”
Akhtar is one of the popular shopkeepers whose establishment in the souq is several decades old – it was earlier run by his father and grandfather.
He said many of his regular patrons – Omanis as well as expatriates – visited him to offer condolences and share the nation’s grief. “Many of us could not eat or sleep for days that followed this sad news,” he said, adding that every independent and self-employed Omani is a product of the late Sultan Qaboos’s generosity and goodwill for his people.
Akhtar’s shop has welcomed a string of international celebrities including prime ministers, ambassadors, film stars and sports icons, who have bought memorabilia to mark their visit to old Muscat. He also revealed that people from high office in the sultanate, too, regularly purchase gifts – mainly ancient handicrafts, khanjars, antique jewellery and antique home décor from his store. Also, the most memorable visit was that of the Queen of England some decades ago, he recalled.
Jamal Mohammed Ali al Balushi, another trader in the souq who runs the shop, Allaudin City that sells handicrafts and antiques, too, said everything has been possible because the late Sultan had recognised the need to keep ancient traditions and the nation’s cultural heritage alive.
His business, like Akhtar’s, is generations old, and his ancestors traded in silver jewellery and garments across the shores of Oman.
Jamal said the sad news brought collective grief for all shopkeepers of Muttrah Souq.
“We have faced many challenges and hurdles in doing business over the years but nothing was more disheartening than the news of our dear Sultan’s demise,” he said, adding that he joined all the shopkeepers in shutting business for four days, though it was disappointing for many visitors who had not expected something like this.
Jamal said that royal guests have frequented the souq over the years, but he would have loved to personally see the late Sultan visit the souq. “Over the past 50 years, our beloved Sultan was very busy building the nation from scratch. He had many tasks on hand and he fulfilled all his promises to the nation. The biggest gift he has given us is the lesson of being independent, and every citizen loves him for his gracious actions towards all.”
Shantilal, another shop owner who has been a trader of traditional goods in the souq since 1968, said the souq has seen many changes over the years, but it always enjoyed patronage from certain loyal customers for generations. There is a common chord of friendship that binds all shopkeepers in the souq, and it was a collective decision to mourn the demise of Late HM, Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four days, he said.
“Muttrah souq is popular with tourists because it gives people a feel of the local culture,” he said adding that goods sold in this souq are purchased by people from around the world to preserve for posterity. “We are all sad and would like to close business for the entire mourning period, but we also have a commitment to our visitors and need to offer them traditional goods to remember Oman when they go back,” he added, pointing out that all traders in the souq are sad, but they greet customers with a happy face – in true Omani spirit.