"Souks are full of educational tools, from merchandising to display techniques," says Majed al-Sabah, the royal Kuwaiti visionary whose unique Villa Moda boutiques have turned Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait into designer-label bling kingdoms. It's no wonder al-Sabah (who's also a T+L contributing editor) recently took Dutch designer Marcel Wanders deep into the chaotic—and highly profitable—heart of several historic souks to steep him in the Arabic shopping groove: irresistible stall after stall after packed-to-the-gills stall. (The two men are collaborating on the Villa Moda in Bahrain, launching in January 2007, and al-Sabah plans to transform London's Battersea Power Station into the first Villa Moda in the West, scheduled to open in 2009.) "Why are there people who won't go into Comme des Garçons but who will buy expensive pearls in a souk?" the sheikh asks. "Because in a souk, you are invited to smell, taste, and touch everything. No transparent glass shelters keep you away from the products, nobody jumps out from behind a counter to stop you from enjoying the experience." For world travelers who haven't experienced the free-for-all drama of the average souk—where vendors offer everything, not just apricots but also diamond earrings, en plein air—the sheikh has reassuring advice: Hire a guide if you're worried about getting lost; your hotel concierge can recommend one. Then take time to savor everything.
More than 600 years old and known to Cairenes as the Khan, this souk is famous for Egyptian cotton (both off the bolt and fashioned into custom clothes), exquisite metal lanterns, and Islamic art. Opulent antique jewels are sold at Al-Sokkaria Palace. And Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz is a regular in the fun house-mirrored splendor of Fishawi's, a 24-hour coffeehouse that has been open since the late 18th century.
Souks Al-Hamidiyeh, Midhat Pasha, Al-Bzouriyeh, and Al-Harir
These Syrian souks are al-Sabah's favorites, for the fine artisanal techniques on display (vendors roasting almonds, inlaying enamel, weaving silk brocade) and because some of the shops have been in the same families for hundreds of years. Al-Sabah buys caftans at Hamadalla, chocolates at Ghraoui, textiles at Caravan Carpets, embroidered sheets at Bed Linen, and antiques at Husam Al-Khouli's Oriental Arts & Folklore. For soaps and scents, he heads to Souk Al-Bzouriyeh, the market for spices and home to the latest Villa Moda, which opened in April.
The Grand Bazaar
The mother of all souks (part of it dates to 1461) reputedly encompasses 4,000 shops and cafés that cater to 250,000 shoppers a day. Al-Sabah likes the colorful palazzo-style chandeliers at Lumes. For handmade silver tableware, try Barocco Silver.
Souks Al-Silah, Al-Mubarakiya, Al-Gharabally, Al-Boshoot, and Shuwaikh
"Fragrance is a part of the lifestyle of the Middle East," says al-Sabah, who stocks up on traditional scents in the Al-Silah and Al-Gharabally markets. "Nobody leaves home without putting on perfume." Visitors who've had their fill of frankincense and myrrh can prowl the Al-Boshoot market to find antique furniture and handmade caftans. Also try Al-Baghli for men's robes; Najdiya and Al-Fakhera Roastry for the best pistachios; and Al-Fares for jewelry.
Bab al-Bahrain Souk
Famed for its rich yellow 22-karat gold jewelry, Bahrain's souk, which is located behind Bab al-Bahrain, a grandiose gate built in 1945, is also known for its colorful pearls. Al-Sabah likes the traditional robes at Bin Yousef, the caftans at Sheikha Al-Zayaani, halwa sweets at Showaiter, and candies at Esmat Shareef.
Maddening to navigate, the rambling souks of this fabled Moroccan city—more than a dozen markets specializing in all kinds of goods—are slowly being infiltrated by high-style shops run by enterprising French expats, such as the Kashmir-embroidery shrine Akbar Delights. And few carpet dealers are more pleasant than Mohamed Karimi of Bazar Jouti.
The Grand Bazaar
The Iranian capital's souk is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East; a third of the country's commercial and retail trade is said to take place here. Shop in corridors devoted to jewelry, hats, shoes, carpets, spices, metals, paper, saddles, electronics, and knockoff designer clothing. As of last fall, plans were in the offing for a hotel on the bazaar's southern side to cater to tourists—who are more and more seen among the city's shoppers and businessmen.
WHEN TO SHOP Most souks are open daily except Friday, the Islamic day of worship; shops may or may not close for lunch (12:30 to 3:30 p.m.) HOW TO BARGAIN In both low- and high-end shops, al-Sabah says, "always slash the dealer's price in half, then add up to twenty percent maximum" HOW TO PAY "Cash-and-carry is how this business has operated for hundreds of years," the sheikh says; be sure you know where the souk's ATM's are