“In India, over 350,000 Covid-19 cases are recorded daily. Its healthcare system is falling apart. A year ago, I was here in Jeddah during Ramadan 2020. We all had fears and some had lost hope. Nobody was here, it was a ghost city. Yeah… the historic part of Jeddah was empty. This Ramadan is better by far. Look... there are some traffic jams and more shoppers. More shops are re-opening after a hard closure due to the lockdown,” said Nazrul Islam, an Indian taxi driver in Jeddah, when speaking to Majalla.
Celebrations of the Holy Month of Ramadan have always been brighter and happier in the historic area of Jeddah. However, last year was an exception. Covid-19 was sweeping across the Kingdom and the world at large. A quick visit to the old heart of the Jeddah shows how the pandemic has affected the most multicultural spot in a city that plays in harmony with Red Sea vibes.
It is the beating heart of the commercial district in the old city. Qabel Street is over a hundred years old. It has the special vibes that exist in old downtowns in Arab World. A whiff of oud, the woody scent derived from the agarwood tree, will give you a warm welcome upon entering the area.
“It is getting better. Anything is better than last year. More customers are coming. However, we have not reached the pre-Covid-19 levels. I think it will take time. People are afraid to leave home and mingle with others but prefer to shop online. We count on people who are loyal to the shopping experience here in the middle of Old Jeddah,” said Mohammed, a salesperson at a kiosk.
Chocolates and other sweets in their colorful packages increase the appetite for shopping. Strict health precautions are taken with each customer. All shops are provided with digital thermometers, hand gel, gloves and masks.
The second part of the street is full of money exchange shops. Electronic boards show the prices of international currencies. Due to travel restrictions, those shops seemed to have fewer customers. When people do not travel, the demand for international currencies hits a low.
The number of shops that were forced to shut down, permanently or temporarily, or to relocate is readily apparent.
A traditional building in Old Jeddah which is under restoration by the Saudi Ministry of Culture. (Supplied)
Having stir-fried liver is one of most popular activities in Old Jeddah. It is the favorite street food during the nights of Ramadan. Small kiosk owners used to get together at specific spots to serve stir-fried liver. Balila (boiled chickpeas with special seasonings), French fries and fresh fruit juices used to be served in the same area.
“I miss the liver-eating activity. I used to bring my family here to enjoy Ramadan evenings. Unfortunately, there are no kiosks this year despite lifting the lockdown a long time ago,” said Abu Abdullah, a frequent visitor to the Old Downtown.
There are only a handful of restaurants that serve stir-fried liver. The social distance rules have forced restaurants to minimize the number of tables and this means fewer customers. That is why restaurant prices are much higher than those of the kiosks that used to exist in the pre-Covid-19 era.
Near the Saudi Foreign Ministry building is an area famous for its Egyptian cafes. This area is deserted now. Those cafes used to serve the traditional hot and cold Egyptian drinks as well as the tobacco water pipe (shisha). The prohibition of hookahs in the Kingdom together with the lockdown have pushed those cafes into bankruptcy.
“In the old times, I used to come here twice a day for shisha. My friends and I have stopped coming. Cafes that serve shisha were hit hardest,” said Rami, a 33-year-old Egyptian expat based in Jeddah.
The Old Downtown looks like a big restoration workshop. The Saudi Ministry of Culture is restoring old mosques, buildings and traditional markets, most of which are inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Last year, the Saudi government took the opportunity of the lockdown to rehabilitate around 100 traditional buildings, preserving their identity and existence. The whole Historic Jeddah will be transformed into a hub for culture, arts and festivals.
“We are excited to witness the transformation of the Old City. Restoring the beauty of the old buildings will help this part of the city become a touristic hub. I can’t wait” told to Majalla by Sarah, a Saudi graphic designer.