On my second trip to Dubai, I decided to skip the Burj Khalifa. It might be the tallest building in the world, but I wanted to sniff out something different beneath the glitter of this petite yet global Emirati nation. There are tempting sales everywhere, all the time, but I’d rather shop for experiences. With that thought firmly entrenched in my mind, I left for Deira in the old part of the country.
The Spice Souk lies adjacent to its very popular counterpart, the Gold Souk in Eastern Dubai that is visited by plenty of gold-crazed Indians. Being a surprisingly small market, it could easily be overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbour that announces Dubai as the ‘City of Gold’ at its entrance. It’s easy to get here, however, as one can hop on to one of the many boats at the Deira creek wharf, for only a dirham.
‘Souk’ is an Arabic word for market, and despite its small size, the Spice Souk is a power-packed mélange of exotic smells that fill narrow alleys and vibrant colours in little mounds of herbs, dried flowers, and pods. Stores of all kinds line the covered street – small shops with jars of spices, big stores with rows of giant jute bags showcasing their fare, and stalls displaying their goodies in the open.
The riot of colours is astounding; the greens and whites of peppercorn, the purple hues of dried blossoms, sheer yellows of turmeric pieces and the bright red of chilies, both powdered and whole. I walk through the tapering street, beckoned in loud but respectful tones by shopkeepers, each trying to outdo the other. I stop to browse through the spices on display at a tall man’s shop, every inch the Arabic with his light skin tone, greyish-green eyes and a charming smile. Nouman Zamir welcomes me with trademark Middle Eastern warmth, and only his salt-and-pepper hair give away his age.
Zamir has been carrying on his father’s business in the Spice Souk which is a little over sixty years old. He shows me his finest saffron, and then leads me through the rest of the piles. The bright blue cystals are those of indigo, dyeing material in its original form. The yellow blocks of sulphur are to keep skin ailments at bay. There are beautiful dried hibiscus, chrysanthemum and lavender flowers that can be boiled and strained for fragrant teas brimming with anti-oxidants, or added to traditional cooking. There’s even a bag of rose buds! Round and hard, brown balls of dried lemons wait for salvation in a bowl of tagine or stew. While there are several spices that I know such as whole cardamoms and vanilla pods, there are colourful rock crystals that I don’t recognise. To my astonishment, these turn out to be incense that is broken into pieces and lit.
I thank Zamir and continue to walk down the alley. The two main streets are marked by the odd souvenir shop and the local shop selling abayas, the traditional dress women wear, and sheesha, a water pipe used to smoke-flavoured tobacco, and other household bric-a-brac. I browse through them, but finally land at a spice shop again.
My souvenir shopping is a piece of volcanic rock to be used as a pumice stone and scrub. I head to the exit, but as an afterthought, swing around to go to the store one last time. I don’t really know what I’ll use it for, but I pick up a piece of indigo, perhaps just for its brilliant blue, and to preserve a piece of this bygone world, so startlingly different from the buzz of its surroundings.