Published in Nov-Dec 2022
It is a warm Thursday afternoon in Quetta, and as usual, Sariab Road is teeming with traffic. Rickshaws sputter, cars whiz by and bus drivers and motorcyclists navigate the chaotic traffic.
Four kilometres from the city centre, Sariab Road is Quetta’s longest artery (it stretches for nearly 20 kilometres) and is home to what is known as the “Burma Hotel Area” (although no one seems to know why it was named as such, as there is no Burma Hotel in sight). It is here where at least half a dozen shopping malls, including AR Mall, Abdur Rehman Shopping Mall, N-Mall and Quetta Mall opened recently and are fast becoming extremely popular.
The bustling atmosphere is in sharp contrast to a time not long ago when Sariab Road was referred to as a “no-go” area in the press as well as among people living in Quetta. It was unsafe and synonymous with bomb blasts, target killings and other criminal activities which took place with impunity following the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the tribal chief of the Bugti tribe in 2006. As a result, the few business activities that took place there then came to a halt. However, things have changed drastically due to the improved security situation and Sariab Road seems to be on its way to becoming one of Quetta’s most popular shopping hotspots.
In the Burma Hotel Area, I chat with an elderly resident of the neighbourhood called Azam Khan Bangulzai. We have a cup of tea together and he has a lot to say about the mall culture that has emerged on Sariab Road.
“In the past, most people living in Quetta used to visit Main Bazaar to shop as there were no shopping malls nearby,” he recalls while sipping his tea in a dhaaba. “To the best of my knowledge, malls started opening here five years ago and the mall culture started to thrive. In fact, more malls are currently under construction here.”
I then visit AR Mall, which is possibly the most popular shopping venue on Sariab Road. There, I am welcomed with a festive air and a general liveness that emanates throughout the four floors of this ‘gigantic’ mall, as customers shop with gusto.
The stores deal in myriad items, ranging from cosmetics, shoes and clothes to carpets and jewellery. The brands available here include well-known ones such as J. and Gul Ahmed, in addition to lesser-known ones such as Regalia and Zx.
One of the favoured items in these malls is traditional Balochi hand-woven textiles; they are sewn by women in the province and have been popularised by shopping malls.
“These textiles have become very popular after customers started to see them in the malls,” says a shopkeeper. “We buy them directly from the women who make them at home and they make a good profit, as do we. In this way, we can promote the local industry.”
More recently, keeping in mind the increasing popularity of Irani goods, such as dry fruit, doog, chocolate and biscuits, shopkeepers are making them available in their stores along with Irani carpets. “People buy Iranian carpets because of their quality, which is why they are preferred over the ones made locally.”
Another shopkeeper I encounter is called Amir Mohammad Hassani whose store in AR Mall deals in branded clothing. Like many of the shopkeepers I spoke to, he originally wanted to open his shop in Liaquat Bazaar, which is located in the heart of the city and where most people living in Quetta shop.
“However, as I had a limited budget of Rs 1.5 million, I opened here because the retail space was cheaper compared to other commercial neighbourhoods in Quetta,” says Hassani. “I was a little nervous because at that time not too many people shopped on Sariab Road due to its reputation. However, contrary to my expectations we were able to attract a lot of buyers and on any given day during the peak shopping seasons such as Eid, we end up selling 15 to 20 outfits.”
Malls on Sariab Road attract custom from people across Quetta, including those living nearby and the adjoining Qambarani Road and Bashir Chowk, as well as other nearby neighbourhoods, such as Sirki Road, Shehbaza Town, and Jinnah Town. Hassani says that a sizable number of customers come from interior Balochistan; “most of them come to Quetta in the summer.”
One of the main reasons for Sariab Road’s popularity, he says, has to do with the fact that “most of the items that we sell, including branded clothing, are cheaper than other places in Quetta. This is because we can afford to sell them at better rates as our rents are much lower. As a result, we attract a lot of people who belong to lower-middle-class families.”
One of the customers I speak to at AR Mall is Saima bibi. She says that she lives in the vicinity, and has come with her family to shop for her brother’s engagement ceremony.
When I ask her why she chooses to shop here, she says, “why should we waste our money in Main Bazaar when we get the same things here at better prices? And, best of all, my home is a stone’s throw away; this is why we hardly frequent Main Bazaar anymore; we can get everything we need here.”
Another customer, who does not want her name disclosed, adds: “It took me some time to get used to shopping here because the mall culture was new to me and I preferred to shop in traditional markets and bazaars such as Chori Gali. However, I now shop in malls because they are safer – especially for women– and I can shop with my family members without worrying about security.”
Although Sariab Road’s popularity is increasing, Hassani thinks that middle and upper-middle-class families still prefer to shop at other places because they think that the items available in Sariab Road are of lower quality. However, this is changing with time albeit at a slow pace and given how Sariab Road’s popularity is increasing, Hassani is hopeful that Sariab Road will soon become as popular as Main Bazaar, Liaquat Bazaar and of course Millenium Mall - which is referred to as Quetta’s “first real mall.”
Akbar Notezai is a staff member of DAWN Quetta. firstname.lastname@example.org