Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

DUBAI SOUQ SHOPPING – FOR THE ADVENTUROUS

I originally wrote this article for fancyzipper.com, an online fashion magazine, that has graciously allowed me to repost it here on my blog.  Dubai has many amazing shopping venues, but be a little adventurous, step back in time and explore the traditional Arab souqs. They are amazing.  Here is your roadmap!

Dubai is a unique city bursting with exotic and eclectic experiences.  The old world splendor of Dubai Creek with its mysterious souqs and traditional abra water taxis provide the backdrop to the amazing architecture of soaring skyscrapers.  The alluring azure waters of the Arabian Gulf and the graceful golden dunes of its desert are the natural boundaries of the city. Dubai offers a truly awe-inspiring Middle East experience in a modern and safe setting.

This is a city where shopping is a national pastime; a city that is fiercely challenging London’s ranking as the number one shopping Mecca in the world. Dazzlingly beautiful mega-malls offer an over abundance of high-end designer shops just waiting to dress a well-heeled clientele. 

THE MODERN MALLS
The premiere list includes the Dubai Mall, 440,000 square feet of shopping that includes Fashion Avenue,  home to almost every major fashion brand available; Mall of the Emirates with its indoor skiing resort; and Wafi Mall one of the most opulent and elegant shopping centers in Dubai and home to the Khan Murjan Souq.

Knowing you can sate your appetite, and drain your wallet, with the pleasures of Versace, Chanel or Escada in any major city around the world, why not try the other side of Dubai shopping. Experience the feel of a true Arab shopping excursion in old Dubai’s traditional souqs.

THE OLD SOUQS
The souqs are located along both sides of historic Dubai Creek in the neighborhoods of Deira and Bur Dubai. Here in the Textile, Spice and Gold Souqs you will find a virtual cacophony of men’s and women’s fashions, jewelry, textile, restaurants and just about anything you can imagine – and then some. And for the very adventurous, there is the Fish & Vegetable Souq. Did you read about my first adventure there?

Best to start out early around 9:30 AM as these traditional souqs will close between 1-4 PM during the most intense heat of the day. Early shopping also avoids the tourist crowds. Wear comfortable walking shoes as this will be a day of many steps! A small bottle of water tucked into your purse is a good idea too.

Since you are entering the more traditional section of this Arab town, it is polite to be modestly covered. A rule of thumb is to cover between the neck, elbow and knee in loose fitting clothes. And, don’t forget to bargain for all your purchases . . . the merchants expect it and it is part of the fun of a souq shopping experience.

Taxis are inexpensive in Dubai and as there is virtually no parking in these sections of town, begin by taking a cab and have the driver drop you in front of the Textile Souq in Bur Dubai across from the abra boat docks. If you are lucky, you will get an entertaining driver who will delight you with his tales of Dubai delivered in a crisp British accent of charmingly broken English.

TEXTILE SOUQ
Your first stop is the Textile Souq. Do you have a particular garment you have been lusting after but just haven’t parted with the cold cash to purchase? Bring a picture with you and the merchants of the souq will happily sell you the material to have it made.

If you are in town for a few days, they can get a tailor to sew it right up for you, and if you plead, deliver it to your hotel.  Let your imagination go. This is not going to hurt your wallet.

The entrance of the souq is framed in a graceful dark wooden arch. Be prepared for some aggressive sales tactics as vendors try to entice you to enter their stores.  If you are not interested in the goods keep moving with a polite nod of your head and a firm “no thank you.” 

The first shops you see have a lot of “tourist” merchandise but as you wander deeper into the souq you will be amazed at the beauty of the materials offered. The narrow alleyways twist and turn so just follow them around and take in all the beautiful goods bursting with colors and patterns hanging from the rafters.

 Once you get a feel for what’s on offer, take the plunge and enter one of the shops. The proprietor will welcome you, possibly offer you a beverage, which it is polite to accept, and delight in showing you his goods.
Luxurious silks from India in deep rich colors that just beg to be draped around you, playful patterns for cushions and tablecloths, beaded material for that gorgeous evening gown for next year’s social season.   All offered at unbelievable low prices. For 100 dhs ($27) you can purchase enough material to make a table cloth and eight napkins. For 250 dhs ($68) you can purchase enough material to make a beautiful flowing kaftan.

SPICE SOUQ
Tuck your packages under your arm and move on to the Spice Souq by making your way back to the entrance of the Textile Souq and crossing the street to the abra boat stands. For only 1 dhs (about $.37) you can take an abra across Dubai Creek to Deira. The trip is a lovely cool respite with a panoramic view of the Creek, an intricate part of the city’s commerce as it has been since the early 1800s. Small boats loaded with goods come and go from neighboring Arab countries just as they have for centuries.  

For anyone who loves to cook, or who has friends who do, the Spice Souq is a delectable site.  Just standing in the middle of one of the alleys and taking in the aromas of exotic spices is worth the trip.

Once you disembark from the abra you will see a similar wooden arch leading into the alleys of the Spice Souq. Once again brace yourself for the salesmen. Don’t be insulted, they are just doing their job.

Try to find Yousuf, an enterprising young man from Iran, who is my personal spice merchant.  As you stand with the arch on your left you will see the first “outside” alleyway.  Walk past this and enter the first interior alleyway on your left. Three shops down on your left you should find Yousuf. If you need to, just ask any of the merchants where to find Yousuf and they will point you in the right direction.

JP Griffin and Yousuf
Any unmarried daughters? Be aware that Yousuf is single and looking for a wife and is bound to offer you a few camels for her hand in marriage. Don’t be offended, it is just his running joke and he is so cute and personable that he is sure to make a very entertaining son-in-law! And, think of the spices he would bring his favorite mother-in-law!

Yousuf loves to enlighten his customers on the exotic tastes of Middle East spices.  He will gleefully explain the various spices and their medicinal benefits. Ask him about loomis in particular.  It’s a delicious lemony addition to your rice that will take it to new levels. His Iranian pistachios are to die for.

Try some of his special Ras el Hanout (top of the shop). This is an exotic smelling mixture of his best spices that he makes on the spot - wonderful on chicken or seafood.  Tell him Katie sent you and you are sure to be offered a little gift. It is the custom. 

After you have completed your purchases, take a few moments to wander around the souq. The fragrances in the dark cool alleyways are just luscious. The large bags of spices that line the walls just beckon you with their aromas. . . cinnamon . . . cardamom . . . turmeric . . . red pepper . . .  curry . . . not only are they scrumptious to smell, the array of color is a delight for the eyes.    

GOLD SOUQ
Whether your bank account is robust or not, you must check out the Gold Souq.  Ask anyone for directions. It is just a short walk away.

This is truly “Big Daddy” bling-bling. Visually it is an orgy of all that glitters gold with row after row of exquisitely breathtaking jewelry designs.























You can just see regal Arabian Sheikhas dripping in some of these startling creations at weddings and formal events. For more casual wear, tasteful gold bangles, necklaces and simpler designs are sure to catch your eye.   

It is important to check out the price of gold the night before you go. This will give you a level of comfort when the price is given. Gold is sold by weight and the price is based on the cost of gold per ounce on that particular day plus a premium.  So, if a design catches your eye, feel comfortable entering an establishment and striking a bargain.

Be cautious about casually complimenting a design because, before you know it you will be wearing it and, the proprietor will brush aside your protest that you do not want to purchase his magnificent $10,000 necklace. This is just a part of the charm and fun of shopping in Dubai. You should have your “no thank you” down pat by this point.

FISH & VEGETABLE SOUQ
If you are still in the neighborhood around lunch and are feeling brave, visit the Fish & Vegetable Souq to pick out some nice fresh seafood to enjoy.  Jump in a cab for a short ride to the souq.  Next to the souq is the Grill & Shark Restaurant that will cook your purchase.

Stamina will be needed for this shopping experience since, in addition to the fresh salty “aroma” of the market; you will encounter “coolies” with wheel barrows offering their assistance. They will prove to be the most insistent vendors you meet all day. You really do not need them unless you are making a large purchase.  To dismiss them will take your firmest “no thank you.”

Enter the market at the vegetable section. Pass by stall after stall of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. About half-way in take a sharp right turn. There will be no doubt where you are!

As with fish markets all over the world, you will be confronted with a frantic, ear-deafening scene of hundreds of blue suited (all laborers where color-coded uniforms in Dubai) workers feverously selling their seafood. So chaotic is the scene it may take a moment to get settled into your surroundings.  

Pick out a nice looking fish-monger and decide what you would like to have for lunch. The selection will be quite varied with beautiful shrimp and lobster, bright pink snapper, kingfish, sea bass and even barracuda. One plea from the environmentalists is not to select Hammour, a local grouper type fish, which is dangerously overfished in the area. 

After you have settled on a price and the fact that you do not need more than one or two fish, have your fish cleaned at the cleaning station and then ask for directions to the Grill & Shark Restaurant which is a very short walk away.

Be aware that “restaurant” isn’t always an exact translation. This establishment is happy to fry your seafood but it is strictly a take-a-way meal. No seating is available. But the freshness of the seafood makes it all worth the effort. 

Souq shopping, even in Dubai, is not for the faint-hearted. But if you venture in, you are sure to have a shopping tales to delight and amuse your friends.  Especially when you entertain them wearing your stunning kaftan as they are seated at your dining table covered in an exquisite tablecloth raving about the wonderful fish cooked in such exotic spices.  Inshallah!

Postscripts . . .
Helpful tips for exploring Dubai . . . 
The weekend is Friday and Saturday  . . . With Friday being the Holy Day, this means that some retail shops will be closed on Friday’s until mid-afternoon.

Don’t bother renting a car . . .  you will never find your way around Dubai’s unexplainable roadway system, or find a parking spot; taxis are inexpensive but for the ultimate experience hire a car and driver for the day. 

Never pay full price . . . Dubai is the city of coupons and discounts. There are even books that provide 2-for-1 coupons to most of Dubai attractions and restaurants – even high end ones. Sign up for www.Gonabit.com  or www.cobone.com or www.groupon.com daily online coupons. 

Many Thanks . . . Many thanks to JP Griffin and good friend Anne O’Connell who both accompanied me on sections of this adventure to check out the sites and make sure make sure the “road map” to the Dubai Souqs actually worked!

30 comments:

  1. Katie - thanks for posting an account of your souk adventures! I am still using my Ras el Hanout and the smell brings back memories of our visit with Yousuf. Tell him my daughter would love to meet him, but he would have a hard time finding Camel Parking in NYC! JP

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  2. Loving your adventures and living vicariously!
    Susan

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  3. Katie,
    Jon and I still want to visit you and Roger before you leave. Would you help us set up a time between November and February. We want to plan a trip to India and would like to visit on the way if that works out. With all the fun you describe, we hate to miss out before you leave.
    Elaine

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  4. We would welcome your visit and the opportunity to share this beautiful country. I will provide info to your personal email address.

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  5. Yousef, my personal spice merchant, made the news today in The National newspaper. In their series on "Desert Survival" (http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/desert-survival-plants-that-heal) they talk about the plants and trees of the desert and how the Bedouins used them for medicine. Yousef is a great source for these products . .and he is also very knowledgeable about their use.

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  8. Thanks for taking us along on this wonderful adventure -- bet those spices are intoxicating!

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