Old mothers hold court at Souq al Shebra in buraimi

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itting on her mat at the entrance to the Souq al Shebra, Umm Yousif has watched the crowds come and go every day for the past 40 years.

"I used to sell live chickens, but the municipality made me stop because I was not authorised," she says in a heavy bedu accent. These days she sells ....llic burqas and Arabic rugag bread instead.

"Back then, this [ground] used to be sand, people used to all live in tents - there were no roads."

She was the souq's first female trader, she says. "You see all these ladies sitting here? I was here before all of them."

Each day, Umm Yousif makes the half-hour journey from Buraimi in Oman, dropping her son at work on the way. She parks, then walks, limping, to be at her corner by 7am. On her head she carries a cloth filled with her goods.

"I don't like staying at home for a minute. I get bored and the arguments start."

She laughs when asked how old she is. "In all my five pregnancies, I never knew how many months I was pregnant. Sometimes I only knew I was pregnant when I was giving birth."

An Emirati father and son come to buy rugag. As she reaches across to give the man his bread, the scars and burns from decades of baking and sewing are visible under the faded henna.

"Al Ain, dar al zain [place of goodness], everyone knows me. I never want to leave - where will I go if I am removed?"

The authorities want her gone - her and the dozen or so other unlicensed Omani women who set out their mats near the market entrance.

The municipality says it needs to be able control what is sold in the souq, citing safety concerns. To this end, it recently issued rules requiring even the smallest traders to be licensed.

So far, they have refused to comply. Yet none of them wants to move.

Next to Umm Yousif, in the spot she has occupied for 21 years, sits Umm Walid with her jars of home-mixed henna, lemon, fresh eggs and kohl. She says she thinks she is in her late 60s.

"Before malls and supermarkets a lot more people used to come, but the people who know us still come," she says, her weak voice barely audible from under her ....l burqa. She, too, makes the 30km daily journey from Buraimi. An Emirati lady interrupts to buy five sticks of kohl. "Men use them here, usually on special occasions," she says. "It's a form of beauty for them, and good for the eyes. You can not find this outside the market, only the artificial one. This is the real kohl."

Obaid Rashid, another Omani, is selling vegetables and herbs. He is one of the only male traders.

"Death is next, there is nowhere else for us. This is all we know and we are happy; me and my three wives and children," he says. "Here the prices are less and the products are fresh."

As a group of tourists walks past, Umm Yousif gets up to show them how to wear her Dh10 burqas. They buy a bag of the "cheap souvenirs", with one of the group fitting one on her face as she walks away.

"We just came from the vegetable side, we were harassed by shopkeepers to buy almost everything, but it was interesting," says Elizabeth Jackson, a 46-year-old Briton.

"I came with my friends here to get a feel of what a real souq is like - we don't want to go to any artificial ones."

A few metres into the market, Saif al Shamsi sits by his stall of dry salty fish and Khos [bags made of palm leaves]. His late father set up the stall more than 45 years ago.

As he and his friends sip their Arabic coffees, he explains that he, too, is not happy.

"During Sheikh Zayed's time, we never paid for rent. Now I pay Dh2,779 a year - not including the permits," he said.

Near the end of the souq, tinted Land Cruisers park temporarily whilst maids accompany their madams to make quick purchases unnoticed by any men.

On the other side of the souq, a line of shops sell camel gear. Umm Nasr is among the elderly Omani women who sit outside, sewing camel seats and sacks.

As the Dhuhr prayer call rings through the souq, they start to pack up to leave. "I will be back tomorrow with more needles," she says. "This one isn't good.

In the meantime, she is planning a typically early night. "I try to sleep early because I come at 7am, and leave the house just after 6am."


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