DUBAI: With its glitzy malls and modern architecture, Dubai seems to be a beacon for the best of modernity to the average visitor. Yet in the midst of all the modernism, vestiges of the region’s quaint past peek through in the traditional souks and heritage monuments of the city, all lovingly maintained to keep alive the memory of the past.
And it’s not simply a cosmetic memory — the old souks and bazaars of modern Dubai are very much alive and kicking, preserving a sense of continuity in the middle of glass-fronted skyscrapers.
It’s almost as if the traditional shop fronts have been frozen in time; the goods they sell may have changed but, to invoke a cliché, the overall scene could well be one out of the Arabian Nights.
And it is this aspect of Dubai that is proving to be a big draw for tourists during the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) this year.
The Gold Souk and the Spice Souk in the Deira district are where European tourists are drawn to the most. Crowds of tourists can also be seen at Naif Road — a place that has been selling traditional products for many years. The place has the buzz of the proverbial busy oriental marketplace. Small shops compete with each other to get as many customers as possible, the shopkeepers crying out their wares of cloth, traditional Arabic “abayas” and various other accessories in singsong voices.
There is an entire range of goods here that are far removed from the world of malls, hypermarkets and departmental stores.
Traditional Arabic perfumes sparkle in glass vials and decanters, spreading their intoxicating aromas all around the place. Furniture shops sell old-style, ornamentally carved teak flat beds and chairs, a far cry from the bland, plyboard recliners and king- or queen-size beds in international minimalistic styles that the malls are full of.
A different array of kitchen equipment hang on the walls of some shops; not the typical stainless steel or glazed aluminium sauce pans and non-stick frying pans but heavy cast iron griddles and deep woks meant for a different, more robust style of cuisine.
Goods that are in abundance include clothes and the spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, asafoetida, saffron, black pepper, turmeric, clove and various chilies — that are heaped up in mounds in their sacks at the spice shops, their heady scents pervading the area and hanging heavy in the air.
Unique spirit, beauty
Dubai’s traditional souks have a unique spirit and a beauty that cannot be found in its malls. From the rampant haggling to get the best bargains, the open display of all wares in heaps without regard for aesthetic window dressing and the shopkeepers calling out to attract potential customers, to the scant regard paid to something as superfluous as lighting and display — the atmosphere itself is the decoration.
It is this atmosphere that many tourists and local Arabs seek in the traditional souks of Dubai. Visitors from abroad, especially from the West, can be seen marvelling at the collection of exotic goods, trying out their bargaining skills and clicking away furiously with their cameras to freeze a memory of a place that itself appears frozen in time.
Most of them also buy a little something from the souks as a souvenir to remind them of their trip to Dubai’s surprising underbelly. Locals often visit for other reasons. Many Arab families buy their traditional sweets from master sweet-making establishments in the souks who have generations of experience behind them. They also seek out the best spices in the spice souks to add that authentic zing to their traditional home cooking.
Most sought after
The most popular souk by far, however, is the Gold Souk and it has been so for more than 40 years. Some shops have been in business for close to half a century, using the lure of the yellow metal and their traditional designs and craftsmanship to attract customers.
A huge variety of jewellery and gold accessories abound in the small lanes and labyrinths of the Gold Souk, making the place seem as if it could well be in the time of Sinbad the sailor, except, of course, for the high wattage spotlights and neon signs. And the jewellery designs reflect the varied tastes of the visitors.
There are European geometric patterns, delicate Indian motifs and filigree work and the heavy ornaments preferred by Arab customers — a rainbow of cultures depicted in lustrous yellow.
While the Gold Souk is a draw all round the year, the DSF is its busiest time. The lanes are crowded with visitors from all around the globe who have come to Dubai for DSF 2013 because of its reputation as the “city of gold”.