Beneath the glitzy veneer of Dubai’s skyscrapers lies a small patch of old Dubai untouched by the forces of globalisation.
Dubai is a place where big deals are made. In cavernous boardrooms, perched high among the city’s nest of gleaming skyscrapers, billion dollar partnerships are forged every other week, underlining Dubai’s status as a global financial hub. Yet it’s not long ago that the city’s economy was fuelled almost exclusively by small deals.
Until oil was discovered in the city in 1966 which signalled the start of its boom, Dubai had been merely a sleepy trading port. Rather than the signing of giant corporate contracts, most commercial meetings back then involved the hand-to-hand exchange of traditional goods like pearls, fish and spices. This traditional form of commerce is still alive in Dubai. But you must venture beyond its cutting-edge city centre to uncover it.
Deira Spice Souk is one such place, offering an ever rarer glimpse at what Dubai looked like pre-boom. Most of the Dubai we know today has been built in the past 25 years. The lofty skyscrapers, luxury hotels, plush apartment blocks, and endless giant shopping malls are all recent additions to the cityscape. As a result, there is fairly limited evidence of the communities and culture which previously existed there.
The historic neighbourhood of Deira is one area where the present does not feel entirely disconnected from the past. Deira was built on the northern banks of Dubai Creek, the waterway which flows from the Persian Gulf into Dubai. This creek once was the lifeblood of the local economy, before oil surged through its veins. Many of the city’s oldest souks (markets) were built alongside it here in Deira.
The gold and fish markets of Deira continue to do a thriving trade, but it is the spice souk which is most enchanting. Made up of a network of narrow alleys, this souk is lined with traditional Emirati earthen buildings occupied by vendors selling an exorbitant variety of spices, teas, fragrances, essential oils, incense and traditional medicines.
The Persian Gulf was a key trading post along the ancient spice route which connected Asia and Europe, and many of the same spices and perfumes which were so popular 1,000 years ago are still sold at the souk. “Sir, sir, some Frankincense for you, very lovely smell,” hollers one fragrance vendor, beckoning me to enter his shop.
I pause briefly and the young man eloquently lists his other sweet-scented products. They include rose petals, vanilla pods, cinnamon sticks, lavender and hibiscus piled high in hessian sacks. The entire souk smells wonderful. I find myself inspecting each stall to try to trace the origins of the extraordinary aromas which are swirling around me. I have no shortage of guides to this sphere of scents – at all times at least two vendors are by my side regaling me with their knowledge.
“Jasmine tea! Jasmine tea!” exclaims one vendor when he recognises the smell I’m describing. Swiftly he leans down, grabs a pile of Jasmine tea leaves in his hand and thrusts them before my nose. Ah yes, this is the aroma that has been courting me since I arrived in the souk. So we set about haggling over the price of a 200g packet of Jasmine tea, just as people have done in Deira for centuries. His opening price is slightly excessive at 30 dirhams (USD8) but after a minute or so of good-natured bartering we agree on 15 dirhams (USD4).
Admittedly, the spice souk is not an entirely authentic bazaar, having become more and more tailored towards tourists in recent years, after previously being a local market. This is due to two reasons: the rising popularity of supermarkets among Dubai residents and a steady increase in foreign visitors to the souk. Mixed in among the more traditional souk offerings are a smattering of souvenirs, which vary in quality, and many of the vendors are slick in their approaches to foreigners.
Yet, fortunately, this spice market has not become a soulless tourist trap. It remains a charming, fascinating place with few rude or pushy vendors. In fact, I found the sellers to be polite and amiable, and their conversation enhanced my experience.
It’s not all tourists who shop here either. While the Persian rugs and shisha pipes undoubtedly are destined for tourist suitcases, the fresh spices are more likely to end up in a local’s kitchen. The peppercorns, dried chillies and myriad curry powders are staple ingredients of the cuisine of South Asia, from where many of Dubai’s huge expat population originate.
Deira’s spice souk may not be the thriving local bazaar it once was, when ships laden with goods cruised down the creek and unloaded at its jetties, bringing the world to its doorstep. But amid the ever-modernising environment of Dubai, it’s a welcome throwback to a simpler time before world-record skyscrapers, luxurious malls and six-star hotels. It’s Dubai as it used to be.