To be fully transparent, I would rarely shop at the old market. My weekly purchases for a two-person household are embarrassingly meagre and the market seemed geared towards larger families buying kilos of onions and crates of tomatoes. My supplies would be limited to a bag of Medjool or Bam dates, an annual supply of Abu Hasan’s fragrant “bezar” spice blend and a free slice of watermelon or a stray orange that my Keralite coconut vendor would thrust into my hands – “Eat! Good! No pay! EAT!”
Despite my paltry purchases, the fish market, smelly and chaotic that it was, made me feel both alive and nostalgic about the simpler times growing up in Dubai. I would love taking visitors to the market, especially during the anarchic wholesale auction before dawn, and shocking them with one of the few things in the city that was not polished, manicured or branded. On one particular visit with a group of camera-wielding visitors, an obnoxious gust of wind overturned a carton of fish waste and unleashed an odious snowfall of fish scales over our camera lenses, hair and faces. The fishmongers erupted into laughter as we sputtered out scales and squealed in disgust. It was repulsive and endearing all at once.
There will never be a rogue gust of wind through the new fish market, just the obedient silence of air conditioning. The slushy floor that I would often tip toe across has been replaced with creamy white tiles. The tight aisles between the stalls where you would inevitably brush against something wet and slippery – best not to know what it was – have spilled into the airy walkways that we are programmed to expect of our malls. The new market is polished and perfect.
Except that it’s missing my Keralite coconut vendor.
But I don’t dislike the new market. I expected to feel sad and betrayed by a new shiny ‘fish mall’ whose rules are restrictive and whose rents to the vendors are double what they used to be at the old market. But to the contrary, I felt a mixed bag of emotions when I visited this summer and saw familiar faces – my wheelbarrow man Arsalan, my favourite dates vendor and two of my fishmonger acquaintances – working in a comfortable environment rather than the intolerable summer heat outside. But of all the conflicting emotions running through my mind as I scanned the sterile space, hope was the strongest.
My hope had nothing to do with free underground parking (though it did greatly help). Rather, it was born out of the fact that the new market serves the modern day shopper who demands comfort and convenience. Will traditional markets survive if they don’t modernise?
A majority of the city’s residents no longer invest in relationships with vendors at traditional souks or open-air markets; most of us opt for all-inclusive hypermarkets. Even if we return to specialised relationships, it is to organic markets or farm shops for instance, but not to the traditional hawkers of Old Dubai. Will this new market be successful at reconnecting people with the old school concept of specialised vendors – my butcher, my vegetable vendor, my fruit seller, my fishmonger? Will it spark the curiosity of those residents who favour the air-conditioned comfort and orderliness of a supermarket-style shopping experience? Will the vendors eventually see a new share of business walk through their sliding doors? I hope so.
It is challenging to fully understand the impact of this market move, and I doubt we ever will. We cannot accurately predict what would have happened over time to the old market as more and more people shift their purchasing habits to supermarkets, organic stores, farm shops, and even online. My inclination is to say that time will tell, but that passive approach is not being honest about the role we play as customers.
The character of the old market was defined by the hawkers and barrow boys. Some have left, but many of these same characters are still there, waiting for us to support them in a move they did not elect to make. It is not just about capturing an ‘authentic photograph,’ this is about how our shopping habits directly impact a market’s livelihood. And with the hope that they can sustain their move, I withdraw my cynicism and resistance to change. May the new vendors recover the higher costs, may new customers shop at their stalls, and may I find my Keralite coconut vendor someday again.
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