Monday, 9 June 2008


I was bibbling on about speedbump communities developing in the UAE the other day. Another developer-free development that I have been delighted to witness in my time here has been that of the Iranian souks of the Arabian Gulf coastal ports. While Dubai had the long established Iranian community in Bastakia (named after Bastak in Iran and rebuilt in concrete rather than the more authentic Souk Al Arsah in Sharjah which was restored using traditional coral building materials), younger communities have built up in Sharjah, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah, built around dhows from Iran docking and offloading their cargo of stuff to flog on the side: melamine plates, garish plastic kitchenware, aluminium pots and ‘mutton grab’ trays as well as knock-off brand soaps, cleaners (Dettox! Clorex! Persul!) and detergents.

Ajman’s packing-case Irani souk burned down a few years ago and was replaced with a covered souk by the government. It’s a wonderland of mad plastic and ceramic, local housewives hammering away verbally at moustachioed, swarthy vendors in vests - locked in the glorious traditional ritual of barter.

And in Ras Al Khaimah, you’ll find the Irani souk on the dockside, still made out of wooden offcuts: a long line of stalls selling the whole mad collection of things they make in Iran and China.

Today, the most developed of these port-side souks is the Iranian souk off Sharjah port, which has now become a row of established shops along the corniche road and even has its own distinctive blue mosaic-adorned Irani mosque. It’s here, just off the restored buildings of the old souk and arts area, that you’ll still find ‘poor’ stores selling charcoal, hashish, shishas and traditional brooms and matting, as well as stores selling dried herbs, medicines and traditional bukhours and perfumes: it’s a wonderful evening’s wander along the shopfronts.

Here, incidentally, as well as on Ajman's perimeter road where there are also still a couple of traditional 'poor' stores, you can buy hashish. But don't get too excited - hashish is Arabic for 'grass' and this stuff really is dried grass. And, as I'm wandering, you might (or might not) be interested to know that this is how we derive the English word assassin - it's from the Arabic 'hashishim', or dope-fiends. There's a story to that, but I think I've wandered enough for now...

The shops all have Iranian names and sell floor to ceiling kitchen goods, kitchen electricals, plastic stuff, cool-boxes, spices and pretty much anything else that can be retailed. The opposite side of the road is all bustle, too: the frenetic commerce of the dhow port is at play here – the boats that still ply the ports of the Gulf, Red Sea and East Africa as well as the routes across to India and carry anything from onions or coal to cars and white goods.

If this kind of thing tickles you, incidentally, you’ll love this: Len Chapman’s labour of love (I’ve plugged it before), is a really amazing collection of pictures and anecdotes from the people that truly do remember ‘when that was all sand’... It’s a great place to spend an hour wandering around – particularly if you want to get a feel for quite how astonishing the transition from Dubai to Lalaland has been.

The dhow ports are probably the last surviving link between Len's UAE and ours. I bet they'll find a way to convert these last informal communities into nice, neat formal ones too, with RTA regulated shippers operating from air conditioned cabins and plastic dhows with electric motors to stop residents being woken. Dubai Dhow City. Can't wait.

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