How many foreigners get the chance I just got? I am the first, for sure. I was invited (yes, invited,) to set up my own table in the Salalah Haffa Souq—that’s the Frankincense souq, and it’s really, actually, truly a traditional, Arabic Souq. It’s not modern, there is no mall attached, no corporations at all, and I love it there. Since this is the big season for visitors from the Gulf countries, we were slammed the whole time. I didn’t even bother to post my signs in English. Arabic only.
The past three weeks have been better for my Arabic language skills than the entire three years before it, Wallah.
So here’s what I did.
Every morning I finished making my day's Ice Cream—it’s the flavor of Frankincense, and quite strong! Then I would make the batch for the next day as it has to chill and the process is two-step. After this batch was cooked, and cooled and then put away to chill and everything cleaned, I took the batch I had finished that morning, each now frozen in individual cups, packed them in some ice chests and hauled off to the Souq during the slowest part of the day. It’s Khareef here, and that means monsoon. It’s gray and misty and rainy and Salalah is packed with people from all over the Gulf, who have come to relax in the mist, enjoy the chill, drink fresh coconuts, and gaze at the sea. Traffic is hideous.
Once at the Souq, I waited for the restaurant guys to bring my freezer outside for me. Then I plugged in, unloaded my ice cream, locked it up, and fled before I got mobbed. I could only make a little over 100 a day, maybe 110.
Later, just before dusk, I came back, parking where I could, and carrying my bag of spoons, change, bags, etc. As I walked through the outer reaches of the market, instead of cat calls, I heard “Ice Cream!” Once at the table I set it up, cleaning the surfaces, adorning it with a cloth, my signs, a box of tissue, my little sample cup and a plastic Tupperware container of spoons. And, during this last week, my notebook for email addresses and comments.
That is not something normal to this culture, giving the email accounts. I had to explain to everyone why I wanted their email addresses, even though my friend wrote a sign for me, explaining it. Some left their phone numbers, some men passed hidden phone numbers rolled up in money, or wrote them on other pages where no one else could see them, or took pictures of the email page with their cell phone, thinking it was my email address. But lots of people signed up. And quite a few wrote comments.
Usually I was busy even before I was set up. The first few days it was Marie, who came with me and jumped into it headfirst, chatting people up, giving tastes, and even coercing people over. The next week or so it was me doing that. I felt shy and speak terrible Arabic but it sure improved fast. I kept realizing with astonishment that I could say whatever I wanted, usually. I even made a rhyme or two. The last week, though, I stopped calling out to people because the Ice Cream was selling too fast. I made my capacity, dictated by the machine, and I came out about 5:30. Was sold out in 3 hours maximum every night. Once night it was only an hour and a half, so I had to try and make it last.
I loved the experience of being there. People are really friendly and they can’t ignore you, not really. Not like New Yorkers do. They can’t help but be friendly and polite and come for a taste of Frankincense Ice Cream. They can’t help it wallah! It’s such an easy sell: Ok, give me two!
It’s really good Ice Cream, and even though it’s two and a half times the price of regular ice cream, people still came for it over and over. Sometimes someone would be so suspicious! And once they tasted it? They turned into little pups, so happy!
You can’t hide your mood. If you feel like crap everyone will know. You have to honestly and truthfully shift your mood. And then quickly your mood actually shifts. Every night my mood was all exclamation points, even if I felt bad or ill.
So much action! Fantastic to see all the people go by and the little local dramas. I sure did see another side of Oman. The guys around me were all Indians selling food and they have very long hours: from 9 in the morning to 2 in the morning. Chickpeas, mango, corn and french fries: Dingu-amba-durra-patates! The Omanis all sell frankincense and bakhoor. And honey.
My table and freezer were across from the two big frankincense stores and right outside “Arabian Gallery.” That’s a big store, about twice the size of Enfleurage, lined with counters and maybe 12 staff manning them for this season, while wheelbarrows arrived every hour or so, bearing 40 kg sacks of frankincense. A constant stream of shoppers made the slow rotation around the store, sampling resins, trying perfumes, I wish I had a video of it, all the regional clothes and ways of tying musars (scarves men wear on the head) from Oman, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar…..
My Ice Cream was something new, original and delicious (esli, jadid wa lathid) and everyone commented on that and asked where I was from. I usually apologize for being American, if only to lighten the mood. So many people asked where they could find it in Muscat or Dubai. All I could say was: Soon, God willing, please sign the guest book so I can inform you!
I gave out a lot of tastes, it was such a pleasure. And when my Omani friends came to see me, the looks on their faces were priceless. I made a shocking spectacle. But they all acted cool and ate some Ice Cream. And they all got into the vibe and started pulling people over and telling them about it. I met quite a few interesting people.
Every night the people responsible for my appearance in the Souq sat in the café across, drank tea and watched, laughing. Apparently the atmosphere was considerably lightened. I believe it. Not sure how much laughing usually goes on during the long Khareef days in Haffa Souq, but there was plenty of it every night I was there.
Word got around pretty quick. Not only that the Ice Cream is really good, and made from real frankincense, and locally made every morning in my home, but I’m an American and it’s just not done, never seen before, an American (woman no less) selling something she makes fresh daily, in that Souq. And the last week people were complimenting my Arabic, which doesn’t mean that much, since they are so polite, but it does mean something as I can yammer on now (just in time to go back to America!!!!! Hell!)
The first few nights it was tiring and I didn’t think I’d work the table alone. By the time I finished night before last, I was so sad to stop, and looked forward every night to my evening in Haffa. It was not tiring, but energizing, and I felt more enthusiastic about it than I have for anything else in quite some time. There was no time to do anything else—my house didn’t get cleaned in a month, and it was all I could do to pick up my laundry! Forget cooking. And hell to drive around Salalah. My life has been my house, that market, and the bi-weekly sojurn to Lulu for supplies.
What else can I say? There was plenty while it was happening but I never had a minute to write down. Now I can only look at the whole experience as it slowly processes through me. I would like to spend a few months working in that market. It was seriously one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.
For anyone reading this who feels sad or depressed, just remember that you never know what can happen. And just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Really, anything, Wallah.