Is that an extremely large necklace? An ornate kurti? Or perhaps a bulletproof vest for visiting royalty? Staring at the most spectacular window display at the Al-Romaizan shop in Dubai’s gold souk, I ponder over this mystery. Turns out, it’s a dress — bodysuit, as shop assistant Muzaffar calls it — weighing over 10 kg and valued at 3 million dirham. I don’t attempt any monetary conversions in my head (which, I am told, is around Rs 5.5 crore); it’s too warm back home in India for me to wear it anyway, I tell myself instead.
Although the gold souk is more than 100 years old, it really came to life during the oil boom of the 1970s, and many of the shops in this traditional market date back to those times. The narrow lanes of this souk, enclosed by wooden pillars and arches, and adorned by the occasional wooden lanterns, is a different world from the Dubai of steel and chrome. The metal that gleams here is far more enticing, even if far more expensive, drawing both savvy locals and bemused tourists to its 300-odd shops through the year.
From handbags to shoes, everything that can possibly be gilded has been. For the next half hour, I expend more energy window-shopping than I ever have in my life. At the very end of the lane, I come across the souk’s real claim to fame, the world’s largest gold ring. The Najma Taiba, or Star of Taiba, weighs — please sit down for this — 57 kg and is studded with over 5 kg of Swarovski stones.
If it is the solid glitter of gold that keeps me lingering at this souk, just a few lanes away, the spice souk beckons with the heady smell of saffron and cinnamon. The shopfronts are arranged in pretty rangolis of spices — from the more common turmeric sticks and chilli powders to the more exotic frankincense chunks and marjoram bunches, via vanilla pods and dried lavender petals. It is a feast for the senses.
The shopkeepers recognise me for who I am, a curious onlooker and not a prospective buyer, and reserve their hard sell. The only thing I am tempted by is the free sample of dates; one bite of these juicy Arabian dates that melt in my mouth and I am hooked. I buy three boxes to take home.
For a city obsessed with building the biggest and the boldest, Dubai hides its small secrets well. The colours and chaos, smells and sounds of its traditional markets (souks) are tucked away in the lanes running parallel and perpendicular to the creek. If the Deira side has the gold and spice souks (among several others), then on the other side of the water, near the Bur Dubai neighbourhood — just a short ride on the abra boat taxi — there are more markets lined with shops selling incense sticks and marigold flowers, carpets and saris, ittar and fake perfumes.
I remember another day from over 10 years ago, on my first Dubai trip, while exploring these very lanes, I had come across a wall poster advertising room space for a Tamilian bachelor. The poster is gone, the bachelor, presumably, married by now and living in his own home, but not much else has changed. Vendors take out large bolts of textiles in striking designs “just to see”, while life goes by unhurried, an echo of times long past.
Not too far from here is the Al Bastikiya district, said to be one of Dubai’s oldest, settled by Persian pearl and textile merchants in the late 19th century. As I amble around what has been dubbed a heritage precinct by the state, I can sense that the buzz in the air here emanates from a fusion of commerce and culture. Unlike the bustle in the shopping malls where Mammon is solely worshipped, the pedestrianised maze at Bastakiya offers a mix of vibrant street art, quirky cafés and coffee shops, art galleries and guest houses, with a new coffee museum thrown into the mix. The Coffee Museum, first of its kind in the region, is located on two levels inside a repurposed old mansion. It is a repository of facts and artefacts about the beverage: from Ethiopian coffee pots to German coffee grinders of World War II vintage, the exhibits are varied and fascinating.
The Arabian Tea House is a serendipitous discovery on this walk — a hidden garden café with white and blue Mediterranean décor. I wash down a mezze platter with cool watermelon juice and go back to exploring Bastakiya. I can barely tear myself away from the Alserkal Cultural Foundation’s stunning exhibition of shadow art by UAE-based Jordanian artists Bassam and Maysoon.
Walking out of the gallery, in the open porch, I bump into the perfect end to this morning, at the tiny Make Art Café — Nouq camel-milk ice cream. I dig into a date-flavoured one, relishing its salty undertones. Amid all the flavours, the peculiarity of finding a coffee museum in Old Dubai is something I am taking back.