Arva Ahmed vis­its the re­cently opened Wa­ter­front fish mar­ket in Deira and feels nos­tal­gic for the old one

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The spank­ing new Wa­ter­front fish mar­ket in Deira leaves our food cul­tur­al­ist Arva Ahmed feel­ing nos­tal­gic for the old one.

To be fully trans­par­ent, I would rarely shop at the old mar­ket. My weekly pur­chases for a twop­er­son 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 su­per­mar­ket­style 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

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

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. Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

Like all things new, the new Wa­ter­front fish mar­ket in Deira too lacks the or­ganic, smelly feel of the old

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