View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Friday Market: Why Markets are Hard to Beat in the UAE

There is a vibrant ambience at a traditional market or ‘souk’ in the United Arab Emirates and this factor is a quality that even the largest malls in the world do not possess.

Take the Friday Market on the Dubai side of Masafi along the road to Fujairah. It’s no wonder that all tour operators stop here. Even the name is quirky, for the Friday Market opens every day and even if you’re traveling the road in the middle of the night there’s always someone awake to sell you a sweet banana or an apple for the road.

The origins of the Friday Market are shrouded in mystery. Nothing is written down but the oral tradition records that decades ago three Emirati farmers would come to the mosque and after Friday prayers they would unload their trucks and sell the produce from their farms at the roadside stalls.

The Friday Market is surprisingly located because whichever way you approach it you round the bend and it’s there before you know it. Sandwiched between high mountains and a nearby wadi, the high rainfall in this area (for the UAE) has ensured the good production of crops and a natural oasis for travelers and people wanting to pitch their tent for a night.

The Friday Market is a work in progress. It is only in recent years that electricity has been connected and the petrol station has added a modern touch. The stalls are no longer run by Emirati farmers but by Bangladeshis who sell fruit and veges, Afghanis and Pakistanis who operate the many carpet shops and Indians and Egyptians who run the café, the souvenir shops and the one cassette and video outlet. There are several extensive nurseries where you can buy bedding plants and sizeable trees. A mosque is part of the strip in case the shopping coincides with a time for prayer. One writer who has traveled this road for many years notes that the Friday Market shops have become disappointingly homogenous in recent years.

One of the attractive things about a market is that the produce is usually fresh and locally grown, although, how much of the Friday Market fruit and vegetables comes from nearby is anyone’s guess. It is fun to wander into the pottery shops where you can purchase locally made pots, cups and incense burners.

One does not feel as claustrophobed in a market as you can when encapsulated in a shopping mall with its special lighting and music to tempt you to buy. If you look around the Friday Market you can see the mountains and the farms which is a vivid reminder of the soil and the trees from where this produce has come.

For those who must have the climate-controlled malls, the Friday Market counters with its creative alternative. People can drive alongside the stalls, place their orders and receive their purchases all from the comfort of their air-conditioned vehicles. The Americans claim to have invented the drive-through concept in the 1940s with their drive-through restaurants (or ‘meals on wheels’), the drive-through banks, the drive-through pharmacies, the drive-through liquor stores and even their drive-through marriages, as popularized in Las Vegas. Sure there are no microphones, speakers and uniformed sales assistants but the Friday Market has been offering a drive-through service for yonks. There are oodles of staff so you won’t be kept waiting if you’re in a hurry.

The best shopping experience is when you get out of the car and the Friday Market is ideally situated to provide a timely stretch for travelers making the trip to and from Fujairah. Moving among the stalls you can see trading at its most basic level. There is no window dressing because there are no windows to dress. There are no advertising banners beaming their cunning logos at you. The market is free of wrapping, credit cards and other fandangled accessories.

But fruit and vege shoppers are induced to make a purchase by the oldest selling principle in the book—‘taste and see’. The vendors, who are mainly from Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, will sit you down, thump on a melon to test for ripeness and cut a generous slice for you to sample. As you sit on your plastic chair munching, with sweet juices flowing from the edges of your mouth, they’ll regale you with stories about their team at the Cricket World Cup. It’s hard to walk away from such friendly and generous shopkeepers empty-handed.

Buying carpets and mats at the Friday Market is equally a fascinating business. If you happen to stop in the early afternoon, chances are you’ll see most carpet sellers lying out the front of their shop having a sleep. The shops are open but the workers enjoy the split shift approach to employment. There are no counters dividing shopkeepers from customers and you can roam around the large areas poking among the piles of carpet. When a design takes your fancy, if you as much as turn your glance away, the carpet seller from Kabul will pull out one hundred other alternatives.

The beauty of the bazaar experience is that there is no fixed price. When you ask, you might be told an outrageous price, although the naïve, who is uninitiated in the art of bartering might reach for their wallet and the seller makes a killing. If you dismiss that price as ludicrous and starting walking towards your car saying, “There’s plenty more carpets along the road,” the vendor will keep asking, “How much do you want to pay?” This cat and mouse haggling is expected and it’s all the fun of the fair.

On my last visit to the Friday Market I purchased a Kashmiri mat. “What is your best price I asked?" The carpet seller from Kabul said it was five hundred dirhams. “Five hundred dirhams,” I exclaimed. “That’s far too much.” When asked what I wanted to pay I said “Two hundred” and received a look of disbelief and a glare that was to say, “Get realistic! How do you think I’m going to earn a living by giving this carpet away?” After the tooing and frooing and some stories about the Taliban we settled on two-hundred and fifty dirhams. Whenever I start to feel guilty about my hard bargaining approach I seek solace and understanding in Umberto Eco’s anecdote concerning Baudolino (in the book with the same title).

Baudolino and the touring party had arrived at Gallipolis to do some shopping and he briefs the group on how to get the best deal:

“You should know that in our markets, at first glance, you wouldn’t want to buy anything because they ask too much, and if you immediately pay what they ask, it’s not that they take you for fools, because they already know you are fools, but they are offended because the merchant’s joy is bargaining. So offer two coins when they ask ten, they’ll come down to seven, you offer three and they come down to five, you stick to three, until they give in, weeping and swearing they’ll end up homeless with all their family. At that point, go ahead and buy, but you should know that the object was worth one coin.”

“Then why should we buy?” the Poet asked.

“Because they also have a right to live, and three coins for what is worth one represents an honest trade.”
(Umberto Eco, Baudolino, p285).

When you visit the UAE, described by a cynic as ‘one giant shopping mall’, don’t forget to visit the souks in Dubai or the Friday Market at Masafi and experience the joy of bargaining.

Geoff Pound

M. D. Anowar is a single man from Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh and has been selling fruit and vegetables at the Friday Market for seven years.

Mr. Ses Khan has been selling carpets at the Friday Market for eleven years. His wife and four children live back in Kabul.