Abu Dhabi Souk: Another Bohri Bazaar

Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1995 (Picture by the author)

You hear a very old song, drifting out of a small shop selling music cassettes. It’s Madam Noor Jahan singing in a much younger voice:
آواز دے کہاں ہے — دنیا میری جواں ہے

The shop is virtually a hole in the wall with the shopkeeper standing behind a counter. He is demonstrating taped songs to a few customers who are obviously Pakistanis, and so is the shopkeeper. For a minute, you forget that you are in Abu Dhabi. It could be anywhere in Pakistan.

This is the Abu Dhabi souk, the popular shopping center and the heart of the city, throbbing with people all the time, buying, browsing, or simply whiling away their time. The majority of the people you see here are expatriate workers, from all over the world: Indians, Pakistanis, other Arab countries, and a noticeable number of Europeans.

Souk in Arabic means market or a traditional shopping center. It’s a place where you don’t have big stores, neatly displayed merchandise with price tags, and intimidating salesmen. Here, you have small shops in narrow lanes, carelessly displayed merchandise, and you always bargain. It’s the equivalent of Bohri bazaar in Karachi.

The music drifting out of the shop is a bit loud, but you like it because it’s nostalgic. Emotionally, it takes you to the time and place where you first heard it. You slow down your pace of walk to hear a little bit more of the song, but the salesman abruptly changes the cassette to demonstrate another song to his customers. You wish he hadn’t.

You continue walking through the narrow lanes with shops on both sides, full of goods and shoppers. Here is a little shop selling pocket calculators and cameras; another one selling TVs, tape recorders, and VCRs; yet another selling kitchenware and crockery. The next one is a clothing shop, selling jeans and jackets; and another selling watches and clocks.

You are in another lane now. This one is selling computer games and sports goods. Here is a money exchange where you can change your money into almost any currency of the world. Another music shop, bigger than the one before, selling Arabic, Urdu, and English music, both popular and classical, from Mukesh to Mozart, Mohammad Rafi to Michael Jackson, and Ustad Amanat Ali to Umm e Kulsoom. The variety is amazing.

The souk consists of hundreds of small shops and is divided into two parts, the Old Souk, and the New Souk. The two are separated by Khalifa Street, a major street, and are connected by an overhead bridge.

The shops, the lanes, the merchandise, all look so similar. If you are new in Abu Dhabi you wouldn’t be able to tell one lane from the other. Even for old Abu Dhabians, sometimes it’s difficult to locate the same shop again.

You emerge out of the crowded lanes onto a large, brick-paved square in the center of the old souk. On one side of the square, is a row of jewelry shops, with tons of gold ornaments hanging in the windows, and always full of customers. In front of the jewelry shops, always at the same spot, you find two or three Indian photographers, with instant cameras hanging around their neck, walking back and forth ready to take your picture if you want to have one taken. They even carry an odd stuffed falcon (falcon is the national bird of the UAE), which they would let perch on your arm while you are posing for the picture. The falcon on your arm would probably reassure your folks back home that you are really in Abu Dhabi, and not in Karachi or Bombay.

In another corner of the square, there are a few Pashtun cobblers from Balochistan, with their tools and leather material neatly displayed in front of them, ready to repair or shine your shoes. The more enterprising ones have an upright weighing scale standing nearby, to earn a little extra money from the weight-conscious shoppers.

It is interesting to see how the expatriate population in Abu Dhabi, or, for that matter, in the whole of UAE, has fallen into distinct occupations. Almost all taxi drivers are Pashtuns, mostly from a particular area of NWFP, and so are the cobblers in the souk. All newspaper hawkers seen at the traffic lights and roundabouts are Indians from Kerala, as are the car cleaners, houseboys, and office tea boys. The hotel waiters are generally Filipinos, and the housemaids mostly Sri Lankan. The Indian Sikhs are usually carpenters and masons.

Even though voluntary, the labor division among the expatriate population is pretty much consistent and conspicuous. You won’t see Pashtun selling newspapers, a Filipino driving a taxi, an Indian Keralite mending shoes, or Sikh washing cars.

In one corner of the square, a Pakistani vendor has a stall selling picture cards showing the sun, sand, sea, and some landmarks of the UAE. Aware of his Pakistani customers’ political tastes, he also displays cards carrying pictures of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto (It was 1984, and the public sentiment in Pakistan was building up against the military dictator, General Ziaul Haq)

I always enter the souk with the feeling that somewhere in those shops I am going to find a treasure, something invaluable. But it never happens. After hours of browsing through several shops, I end up buying a T-shirt or a music cassette or two, or a pocket calculator, or a pair of inexpensive tennis shoes.

The souk presents an interesting spectrum of people of different nationalities, ethnicities, and their mannerism.

You see a small group of tribal Pashtuns, probably Wazirs or Mehsuds, sitting on their haunches in a close circle, in a corner of the square. They are contemplating a radio or some other gadget that one of them has just bought. Then there are Sikhs, in their neatly tied up beards and colorful turbans, walking in twos or threes. The ubiquitous Indian Keralites, who have still not given up on their bell-bottoms. (Elsewhere the fashion died in the 1970s.) The tall Sudanese, in their traditional white, loose robes and white turbans.

In one of the lanes you see a few people, probably Egyptians, sitting on low stools in a row, smoking argeelas (somewhat like a Punjabi hooka) and sipping, in tiny cups, sugarless and milkless tea, called Sulemani, and sharing their stories. The argeela and the Sulemani are supplied by a nearby café, on payment, of course.

Then you have Europeans, mostly British and French, in their T-shirts with different slogans written on them.

Walking through the crowds, you hear different languages: Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Malayalam, French, English, Japanese, and many others.

It is amusing to see half-literate Pakistani and Indian salesmen speak fluent Arabic with their Arab customers while adding words, here and there, from their own languages and dialects. Like, this Indian barber (probably a Gujarati) who, while giving a haircut to his Arab customer, repeatedly saying, “aiwa, barabar”. The former an Arabic word meaning Yes, and the latter an Urdu word meaning OK, I understand.

Note: I wrote this for Dawn in 1984