Ditch the malls; The bazaars are where the fun is at!

Published: March 2, 2013

Anarkali is a fascinating place that stands out as the character of Lahore. PHOTO: ABID NAWAZ

I remember the first time went to a mall; it was way back in 1977. The place was called Brent Mall. Hindsight tells me it was not too big and probably inconsequential, but it looked huge and I hated it.

It was a sanitised place of shopping, crowd dressed every which way to impress, straight lines, homogeneous construction, and uniformity of thought. No culture or creativity.

Today, commencing from USA, expanding to Europe, Middle East and now Asia, the mall is the ‘in’ place. It’s a destination, where you can spend the day. shop, eat, snack, have coffee, watch a movie and even go skiing in one instance! The functionality appeals, but its bourgeois lack of character, well in line with modern day living, really palls and one wishes for the old markets.

I was brought up on such fare and it is in the character created by these old markets that we thrived on. Even on my travels around the world, I’ve seen that some of the most striking places in modern cities are these ethnic markets which bring out the character and culture of the people and shed light on their values. So, I have tried to recall some of these experiences over the years.

Empress Market:

It was the queen of traditional markets – my childhood was spent shopping here. The smelly meat market, great kiryana stores, the pet market, fruit places and more than that, the feel of the place was just surreal. The Gothic-looking architecture is fabulous! I even remember various English memsahibs (ladies) who used to shop here early in the morning.


Bohri Bazaar:

Bohri Bazaar is a place that answers all the needs of Karachiites. I believe the market caught fire in the 50s and had to be rebuilt. They had clothes, toys, books and specifically delicious nimco! It is God’s gift to Karachi, to be visited once a month. Alas, Tariq Road and Hyderi took customers and this market lost its importance.

Sadly, I haven’t been there in years!


Sunday Bazaar Karachi:

This is a place where you to find that elusive Noritake which you pick in bits and make a collection. You get great bargaining. Fruit and vegetables are all available below the retail market. It’s given its character by the endless workers who tag along carrying your goods for a minuscule price and guide you to all the secret goodies.



Now I am not an expert, but Anarkali has that smell and traditional feel – like a wrapped piece of velvet, taken out after decades. It is archaic and redundant now, but grand nevertheless! For some reason, I associate glass bangles and food with Anarkali, though it houses many items. This fascinating place stands out as the character of Lahore.


Quincy Market, Boston:

Here, you can find food of all sorts and people of all sorts too. You are better off roaming in the market on foot as you get a bigger choice. There is music too here too which makes the experience even more enjoyable.

I have a lovely memory of a beautiful afternoon, a quarter of a century ago. I think it was summer. A juggler was performing, and I stood watching, biting into an extremely chunky sub, loaded with beef.

I salivate at the memory.

No sanitised mall can provide the sort of experience I witness at this market.


Grand Bazaar, Istanbul:

At the Grand Bazaar you can buy almost everything, barring a car. This must be the grandest bazaar around. 3,000 shops of all kinds, haggling, and lots of people buying carpets, ceramics, gifts, ornaments, clothes, spices, dates – you name it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to visit the place and the women go absolutely gaga when they go to this bazaar to shop. A few hours of roaming and watching all the haggling and people is an experience in itself.


Petticoat Lane:

My first experience at Petticoat Lane goes back to 1978. I had these delicious, freshly fried sugar-coated doughnuts – piping hot! At the time, I was a student and had very little money to indulge in the trendy clothing, but there were second hand book stalls.

Sundays used to be crowded and you had to push along watching for pickpockets. I’m not sure if it’s still the same, but it was bordering some seedier parts of London, so I expect that not much has changed.

The real tragedy is that hyperstores demolished the high street market – the small corner shop, newsagent, barber, butcher, veggie man, the pharmacy and such. All the years of familiarity and personal touch were gone at the altar of commercialism. Man has lost depth in life to a corporate existence, flushing with glitz and so called glamour.


There are other markets which I have visited and, of course, many more places which others would know. In Singapore I remember buying a quaint Sukarno cap, from an Indonesian market. Lagos is a memory of a shoe purchase from a set of shacks which qualified for a local market. In the Middle East, the old wholesale markets sell below large stores prices and also give you Turkish coffee.

The universal language of hospitality prevails.

The traditional markets are a memory and identity of a world where humans interacted on a personal level and warmth existed amongst strangers – whatever caste or creed.

Alas, it is a world lost!

Read more by Sarfaraz here or follow him on Twitter @sarehman

Sarfaraz Rehman

Sarfaraz Rehman

The author has worked with large scale organizations like Unilever, Pepsi and Engro Foods in his 28 year career. He has now started an education initiative and writes on various subjects. He tweets as @sarehman

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jayzee

    Wonderful. Totally agree. Some new places, the malls are huge, glitzy, expensive prisons. Pictures could have been better.Recommend

  • Farzan

    In traveling, fun part is eating/shopping. But Malls are quick and easy. Esp in business travel. The price we pay for the fast world. So bargaining is not the thing anymore. If I have a lot more time & less to see, would love to go to traditional markets for culture and ethnic foods.Recommend

  • Javeria

    Okay, Sunday bazaar does NOT look like that anymore. God, you guys are so ignorant!Recommend

  • http://www.together-we-rise.blogspot.com Roman Ahsan

    Nice article. The people in this world believe in evolution perhaps with little concern for preserving culture or all that is good. It’s a mad race for innovation though based on my experience of visiting Dubai Mall just recently, it’s a different kind of feel altogether and I wouldn’t say it’s a bad experience. However, what scares is the mammoth disparity between those who can afford and those who are deprived. The disparity is increasing day by day in our country also and should make us wonder about our purpose in this world. Definitely, bazaars are more fun and attention should be paid on reviving them in spirit and in form.Recommend

  • Sarfaraz


    Haha…like your forthrightness. Not really a question of ignorance…,more a case of finding the right digital photograph available on the net. I think they publish so many blogs, its difficult for them to find all the pictures.yes Sunday Bazaar has come up in the world…. Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    @Roman Ahsan:
    you are right and having read your blogs and conversed over the years, I totally understand the disparity bit. Those battles have to be definitely fought and the right of some have to be improved.
    Having said that, in this long life, our cultural nuances play a huge part in our character. So the Quran too came in Arabic, and within it Allah remarked that was important, so people understand. To understand a people we need the grounding of the culture too. Hence its importance.
    Lord McCauleys famous doctrine in 1835. Take away the language of the subcontinent and you will subjugate them totally. As it happened.
    Thanks Roman for your note.Recommend

  • Morons

    @Javeria: Which world do you live in? I actually think the photo is of this week’s Sunday bazar in my area. Even mistook myself standing in the crowd. :(Recommend

  • Nazoo

    Nice read, took me to my college days when the only entertainment we longed was bunking college to go to Bhori Bazar for “chaat” and window shopping. Also agree that malls have much lesser ethnic flavour to offer, however, now you see most uniformed students in these malls eating and shopping. So with time preferences change, i supposeRecommend

  • http://www.together-we-rise.blogspot.com Roman Ahsan

    @ Sarfaraz,

    You are welcome, but on the other hand we cannot say “Ditch the malls” as they have their own unique offering. Just in 2010 and then again in 2011 it was a different experience going around in Dubai Mall, taking breaks in cafeteria with scrumptious snacks, watching movies in the attached cinema hall and even praying at the right time in the praying rooms. The concept is to strike the right balance between everything. However, my dream is “A little house on the prairie” and till I get it, I guess Malls will do :)Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    I think it might be that the Phase VIII one has expanded, has more demarcated and spacy aisles, plus its now quite clean. So the comment and comparison might be to that…I guess. Recommend

  • http://Www.borderlinegreen.com Onaiza

    This post brought back so many memories. I am guilty of enjoying the convenience and comfort of malls, but i miss the life of the bazaars, even more so after reading this piece. In the good old days, the bazaars did the amazing job of blurring class boundaries and forcing people to rub shoulders with those less or more fortunate. Malls limit this experience.Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    @Roman Ahsan:
    That is total sacrilege! Little House on the Prairie and Malls in the same sentence :). May your dream house come true, with others also achieving their dreams.Recommend

  • HAD

    Empress Market photo shows floods. You must have had 100s of better ones.? the old B&W ones!Recommend

  • Rabia Khan

    You’re right; the sanitized aesthetic mall culture, where each shop starts feeling like a clone after a while just doesn’t cut it when it comes to “the shopping experience”; for a satisfying culture expedition (or a fun anthropology study) I would take Bohri Bazaar anyday over the malls. Bazaars are a perfect microcosm of our culture, ie how the real people of the city love, breathe, talk and interact with each other.

    When it comes to shopping though, I’ll go to the malls – it may be a ripoff, but everyone buying in that environment is getting ripped off just like me! At the bazaars, i’m the only one who gets “feext price”.!Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have ended with ‘ It is a world lost ‘…………………no sorry, its not lost.
    All those described and many, many more are alive and kicking, possibly you Sir have moved on. I am possibly nit-picking and I do understand what you are trying to say but the ending just did not fit.Recommend

  • JP Mehta

    The Mall culture is suitable for societies which do not face un-employment problem. However, for under-developed countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh etc, the development of malls have started replacing road-side, mohalla and chowk retail shops thus creating the un-employment problems, class difference and other social issues. Under developed countries don’t need to invest heavily in Capital Intensive projects and automation by paying heavy costs for plant and machinery and royalty to already developed countries (thus making the rich richer). The problem is expected to aggravate in next 10 to 20 years since more than 60% population of Pakistan and Bangladesh and above 50% population of India is under 25 years of age. Thus, we can see a sporadic population growth in coming years in South Asia. These countries need to take conscious steps to introduce projects which are dependent mainly on human resources instead of automation, thus creating options for employment for growing population else the social unrest in coming decades is a writing on the wall for this region. Recommend

  • http://www.together-we-rise.blogspot.com Roman Ahsan


    Why not? Mall is a representation of everything in this world which is upbeat and trendy, while “LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE” symbolizes the conservative side of things, not just confined to bazaars. That is also the reason why some people prefer to stay in villages in Pakistan even in these times and looking after the affairs themselves instead of keeping contractors to do the job. Here’s an article which throws some light in this regard: http://www.together-we-rise.blogspot.com/2013/01/urge-needs-discipline-by-roman-ahsan.htmlRecommend

  • Sarfaraz

    Perhaps:) you want to start a conversation.
    I still love these type of bazaars. Another place to treasure are the ethnic eating places. The Dhabba as one roams around Pakistan is a great place to eat and meet real people. Sampled them, as work for years kept me on the road. Would be a good blog, “the ethnic eating places of the world”.
    Its not misplaced, as I am getting across a comparison with the Malls. So the force of numbers is shifting. Since its shifting, I do think in time people will only go to these bazaars rarely on need, while the mall will be considered a destination on its own. Worse, (perish the thought)…Ebay takes over. End of the human race, enter the Borg. Hence my lament!Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    You have hit bullseye. This is exactly what I feel, plus the enjoyment of watching and talking to real people.Recommend

  • Zeb

    Nice note. It brings back memories of days spent shopping in Anarkali. But with the convenience and all in one attribute, malls are now essential. Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    @JP Mehta:
    Thats an interesting angle to take out of the blog. Since I myself have a commercial background, feel I can comment. The perennial struggle with usage of manpower and so called progress in technology. You do not want to be left behind in the tech train, as that can render you totally uncompetitive and in modern terms incompetent. Now that becomes difficult, finding this balance. Since technology tends to save time and wastage, it might be best to do manpower projects in areas where time is less a factor. This could be in construction, building roads, dams, wholesale trade, some agriculture etc. only problem would be motivation and morality. How do you deliberately target for a two tone population, one advanced modern and the other backward and poor.Recommend

  • Faizan

    The reference to eating places: There are millions to write about. Cannot be accommodated into a blog. People have whole sites and also books invested on this. Can think of dozens of eating places I personally love. Write a book sir, but it will be one of many. Economics shall prevail unfortunately; as in most things.Recommend

  • saima qamar

    Yes absolutely ditch the malls. I agree with your comment on Roman’s Post absolute sacrilege. I hate malls they tire me and bore me. even when i go to Dubai I would rather go to discount stores and meena bazar rather than Dubai mall, same plastic look over and over again. Hence I totally agree with this article, what is the joy of shopping if you are unable to haggle, sweat and have sounds of vendors selling their wares.

    One market i would add here is Covent garden London, the snobby stall holders who judge you by the color of your skin were a real eye opener for me but i enjoyed it never the less ( i hope i have the name of the market right i visited it in early 90s and my memory is not as sharp as sarfraz;s Recommend

  • doom

    All I know is I’m less likely to be groped/leered at/commented at in a mall…Tis a shame I know. The sexual harasser ruin everything for everyone.Recommend

  • Memory

    The write-up reminds of times at home…we should all take these breaks in our life to nurture the softer side. Its makes us better people and the society better. These traditional markets are just one facet, literature, art, theatre are some others.Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Sarfaraz: Understood, appreciated and agreed to your point the first time. What I just thought and I said possibly I’m nit-picking, was your ending saying the world of the market place was lost, which it certainly is not. The street market / small store culture will always remain despite the Wall Marts, K-Marts etc.
    If I’m not wrong Woolworths have closed all over but Petticoat Lane survives. Recommend

  • Mujtaba al-Mahmood

    Sarfaraz,I like your adventure at the Petticoat lane, “My first experience at Petticoat Lane goes back to 1978. I had these delicious, freshly fried sugar-coated doughnuts – piping hot!”

    By saying so,you have also dragged me into my memory lane to recall some sweet and saucy moments…I have visited almost every major markets even beyond the call of the duty in Pakistan,India,Pakistan,USA,Thailand,HongKong.Yangoon,SriLanka,Oman,Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan,Khirgistan and of course Bangladesh…

    Today, discovery Horse meat string in the process meat has become a contentious issue and I am sure Kazakhs must be wondering what is the big fuss about. I have never seen anywhere such a huge assortment of meats under one roof as in Almaty where all the varieties co-exist- lamb,beef,pork,goat,horse meat and needless to mention all kinds poultry. Recommend

  • Mujtaba al-Mahmood

    Sarfaraz,I liked your adventure at the Petticoat lane, “My first experience at Petticoat Lane goes back to 1978. I had these delicious, freshly fried sugar-coated doughnuts – piping hot!”

    By saying so,you have also dragged me into my memory lane to recall some sweet and saucy moments…I have visited almost every major markets even beyond the call of the duty in Pakistan,India,Pakistan,USA,Thailand,HongKong.Yangoon,SriLanka,Oman,Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan,Khirgistan and of course Bangladesh…

    Today, discovery of Horse meat string in the process meat has become a contentious issue and I am sure Kazakhs must be wondering what is the big fuss about. I have never seen anywhere such a huge assortment of meats under one roof as in Almaty green market where all the varieties co-exist- lamb,beef,pork,goat,horse meat and needless to mention all kinds poultry. Recommend

  • Citizen

    The photo of empress market is really an example of why ppl dont want to visit our markets. They are dirty and filthy! We dont maintain our markets or make an effort to lure shoppers there. Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    @saima qamar:
    As mentioned word space meant I deleted Covent Garden. However, did not realise the snobbery there…maybe because in the time I was in England, we were probably desentisized by the look down element and did not feel it. Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    Woolworth was a case of bad management and wrong positioning. They were out of sync with modern day demands. In the early to mid 80s I always collected my breakfast from Woolworth on the way to my audit firm on High Holborn. Even then I could not think of anything else to shop for at the place.
    I hope you are right and the market does survive. But it will lose its cultural importance in time…that is my point. body alive, soul gone..
    In Karachi people must be scared to go to markets nowadays. terrible event yesterday and my prayers go out to all the bereaved.Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    @Mujtaba al-Mahmood:
    Yes I am aware of your prowess in roaming markets. but in all the years, when we worked together can remember only one market visit together. That was a trip to the Faisalabad market, along with Saad Abdul Latif.
    The horsemeat scandal is a labeling issue, not a quality standard issue. So they are saying that these companies did not reveal the actual ingredients, not that it can be adverse to health.Recommend

  • Milind

    @Author – You missed the ‘souks’ from Dubai and other Arab countries… Agreed these are not in the limelight due to ‘mall-ization’ of Dubai… nevertheless these are full of life and vibrancy too..

    The main reason bazaars triumph over malls, is due to a personal touch/connection with the seller… The haggling maybe a minor tick, however mostly the experience is personal, when the vendors showcase their wares trying these out on themselves or talking a common theme. In the malls we may get this occasionally, if the sales guy is good enough, however its mostly scripted…Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Sarfaraz: Lets compromise, both will survive, each serving its end of the market………..the world has crossed 7 billion and counting, so things HAVE to change.Recommend

  • Stranger

    I am from Hyderabad India. the joy we had going to the main Kothi /Begum Bazaar /Charminar areas a few decades back, we dont get it today by going to big posh malls. Mashallah what sounds, what smells, what noises we miss today . S i g h .Recommend

  • Sarfaraz

    oh the numbers will have other effects..one of these days, the environmental agencies will start beating down on the huge mall structure (eternal wish) and put an end to them …. :) I agree, compromiseRecommend

  • vijay

    Both are important I live in North India and i know it is hot and dusty during summers, if i go to market during summers it will be unbearable but very cheap. In malls you have shops and multiplexes so you can shop and enjoy also. I can take my foreign clients to these malls but its very difficult to take them to market as they are chased by beggars and poor children.Recommend