The Old and the New
There’s something about Souq Al-Mubarakiya that we can’t quite explain. It’s like time came to a glorious halt within the boundaries of the souq, preserving Kuwait’s past beautifully. With old men and women manning their stalls, selling everything from herbs, spices, and apothecary goods to clothes, temporary tattoos and accessories. Nothing is impossible to find, and everything is affordable – if you can haggle that is. Full of old Kuwait’s rich culture and tradition, you’ll always find something or another to entertain you while you’re there. Get lost in the markets and enjoy the intertwining stalls – take in all the sights, sounds, and smells of the markets. From sibah – prayer beads – to fresh date kiosks, you can purchase absolutely everything in the souq – and not long ago, people did!
A Brief History:
Over 200 years ago, a marketplace was created in the Al-Mubarakiya area as a platform for vendors to showcase their produce in a raw, non-commercial way. The Souq – market – soon became a cultural hub, catering to the needs of every visitor, whether for the weekly grocery shop or simply an outing to a space bursting with tradition and vividness. With Sheikh Mubarak Al Kabeer’s Kiosk in the center of it all, people were able to openly communicate their hopes, dreams, and worries to their leader. Soon enough, a little further down the road from the Kiosk, a Diwaniya was born, dubbed as Diwaniyet Al Ra’eel Al Awal – The Elders and Founding Fathers’ Diwaniya or commune. The Diwaniya became – and still is – a place for the country’s elders to meet and discuss everything from social issues to the coming elections. Past the Diwaniya, one of Kuwait’s oldest Post Offices can be found. Standing tall, the original majestic doors were preserved, along with a beautiful blue and white post box. Further still, the gates and marker for the Mubarakiya School – a 100 year-old institution of education. Currently open as an exhibition and celebration of academia, the school welcomes visitors from Monday to Saturday.
However, during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, the infrastructure of the Souq was heavily damaged. Nonetheless, the necessary renovations were made, retaining the traditional elements characteristic of the non-commercial trade center, whilst also injecting the marketplace with a hint of modernity in the form of lofty light-displays and play areas for children. It is safe to say that although the Souq has been ever-evolving since its beginnings in the 19th Century, the vibrant atmosphere that one encounters there is unique and very rarely matched. While mornings at the Souq are magnificent in their own right, it is when darkness falls that Mubarakiya comes to life. The crowds gravitate towards the beautifully lit Souq as the fairy lights and lanterns create a warming glow to welcome you home. Given the warm climate of Kuwait, the way in which the Souq was original planned and built served the purpose of providing visitors with plenty of shaded areas, and the architecture still rings true to this day. Even during summer’s warmest days, the Souq does provide shelter for passersby from the heat.
If you find yourself wandering about the Souq, and you suddenly feel lost—don’t. That’s the beauty behind a leisurely exploration of Al-Mubarakiya, as all of the winding roads will unveil myriad surprises.
What is SOMU?
SOMU, or South Mubarakiya for short, is the new ‘old’ district, marked by the recently renovated SOMU Square, or Thouq Square, located behind the AlFares Mosque. Beautiful things are currently happening at SOMU, and you can easily become a part of this change by paying this ‘new’ old area a leisurely visit. That is what visionaries and Thouq founders Ahmad Al-Ghanim and Bader Al Hejailan only ever wished for Kuwait’s oldest commercial and cultural hub, Souq Al-Mubarakiya.
When the original Thouqers first opened their lifestyle, fashion and accessories concept store at the old Al-Mubarakiya Souq, people thought they were crazy. As a concept store, Thouq embodies everything that Bader and Ahmad stand for: an artistic vessel that showcases the finest talents in Kuwait and the region, with new items and concepts arriving in store on a weekly basis. Even though many questioned the location decision of the old marketplace, both Bader and Ahmad zealously defend their choice with an unwavering conviction: Al-Mubrakiya will once again become a thriving hub for arts, culture, and fashion. They have made this belief their sole mission, and they are making it happen.
Located in South Mubarakiya, the Thouq concept store stands amongst an entitled, ‘Thouq square.’ Standing strong for more than sixty years, the area still echoes with remnants of a bygone era where locals toiled, engaged in commerce, and more importantly met with individuals from all parts of the world. Al-Mubarakiya was once a thriving hub, and it still is, yet it seems that the youth have forgotten about it, instead opting for modern malls and chic outlets. In order to take back the area, Ahmad and Bader actually took on the effort of renovating what is now called Thouq Square, and partnered with a group of young individuals in an effort to revive the area. Bader commented, “We’ve let out the neighboring stores to different vendors in an effort to bring back that connection between the youth and Al-Mubarakiya. People need this change, and we wish to celebrate the area with all of its glory. ‘Cool’ things are happening at SOMU, thanks to an amazing generation of young minds.” Essentially, the generation of Thouqers is harnessed by a sense of pride and nostalgia on behalf of Ahmad and Bader. We see them aspiring for a better future through Ahmad’s artwork, and this twosome’s dream for Al-Mubarakiya. A shared vision that echoes with class, elegance and inimitable cool in the simplest of ways.
With wall murals designed by Ahmad Al-Ghanim, brand new tiles, refurbished pergolas, and beautiful design elements throughout, the air is palpable with creative change at SOMU. Today, the area represents a reflection of the beauty of collaborative effort. This is not your typical revamp; it is the ‘new old’. Ahmad told bazaar, “This area started out of nothing, it was very much ignored. Knowing that Ahmad Al-Jaber Street is one of Kuwait’s most expensive areas in terms of real estate, and that we are in the heart of the country’s financial district, we felt that we had to do something about bringing people back to the heart of Mubarakiya.” Opening Thouq in Al-Mubarakiya was equally important for Bader, who believes that “the Souq is the only true testimony of Kuwait’s past and now with the introduction of SOMU, it is a center of a new and creative Kuwait.” Today, all of the spaces around Thouq are booked, and many restaurants along with concept stores are opening up in the area.
Today, SOMU is thriving with new, locally conceived businesses. Most of the new restaurant outlets and cafes have indoor and outdoor seating areas, ensuring that a visit to the area need not be seasonal. There’s an art gallery in the works, along with several enticing concept stores such as Al-Baraka, Thouq, Revolution boutique and more to come! If you’re fan of all things Parisian, then a visit to the French-inspired Flower Latte café is a must. If you prefer dining organic, then the burgers at Brothers Street Food Burgers, and 7th Heaven restaurant will definitely tick all of the boxes. Looking to dine at an establishment that fuses old Kuwaiti traditions with modern values, then definitely head to Msayaan. Soon, valet parking will be available near a dedicated entrance off of Ahmad Al Jaber Street, so if you’re not even in the mood to park, SOMU can still be accessed pretty easily from the main road.
At night, SOMU comes alive with its people, and some restaurants are completely packed. Finally, Bader and Ahmad are seeing people coming back to this area time and time again from different generations. Ahmad said, “At times, I felt like giving up on the whole process as it was extremely frustrating at times. Bader would always remind me to stay positive, stating that people will respond to our efforts. It is really a dream come true, and we still have plenty of work to do.”
It all began when Ahmad submitted a design proposal to the ministry, and once he received the required approval he got to work immediately. From working closely with the amazing people at Tamdeen Group, who generously agreed to sponsor the retiling work he had in mind in terms of executing the design. They co-sponsored the flooring of the area, and the store facades received a much-needed makeover, as some buildings are at least 50 and 60 years old. We learned from Ahmad and Bader that the plan for SOMU is threefold, and not limited to the main Thouq Square. With the assistance of Mr. Mohamad Al-Marzouq, the CEO of Tamdeen, and with the support of many other likeminded individuals, the work went from a mere thought to a reality that is spreading quickly across the area of South Al-Mubarakiya.
Even the municipality is extremely pleased with the developments, and Ahmed and Bader did this out of passion and belief in the area. Nobody hired these creatives to ‘take back Mubarakiya’, as they considered their involvement as a responsibility. Ahmad said, “Our aim is to create a district, therefore any obstacles that people may face when it comes to opening a business, or trying to create something new, are only expected. I don’t want others to be discouraged, but to come visit us at SOMU, and we will gladly help.”
The extension of SOMU, or the work implemented in encouraging more retailers to return to the area, is based on the Thouqers’ vision to bring luxury to the heart of Kuwait’s oldest commercial hub. Ahmed told us that this is where a planned second and third phase comes into play. “We are hoping that this effort spreads to other parts of the Souq. While the entire Souq is undergoing major restoration to the old facades, we are more intent on changing the retail scene in the market.” Two more blocks are planned to undergo refurbishment, as an extension done to the work in Thouq square. Phase one is now booked out by small business owners and is in its final stages of completion, filled with locally created brands with local talents, and an official launch event is set to take place within a few months’ time.
If interested in taking up a space in the second or third phase, simply pass by Thouq, Ahmad is always there! He can offer his guidance, contacting the right people and he will even provide you with a guided tour of the Souq. Be prepared however, to end up at his favorite spot – SOMU. When we asked Ahmad why he loves this area so much, he left us with this inspired thought, “While the entire region is thriving with talent, I haven’t seen, until now, an area that combines art, food, lifestyle and fashion in one district. This can be experienced at SOMU.”