Story of Dubai starts in Deira

As part of our weekly feature on the nation's oldest neighbourhoods, Rym Ghazal takes a look at Deira.

One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Dubai and the main commercial district along Dubai Creek, Deira is a place where tradition and necessity meet.
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // There is a saying about Deira, popular with merchants whose great-grandfathers first set up shop there: "If you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it."

One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Dubai and the main commercial district along Dubai Creek, Deira is a place where tradition and necessity meet. And it is always busy.

As drivers search endlessly for somewhere to park, they must negotiate hectic traffic and swarms of jaywalking merchants who ferry their goods between dhows on the creek side of the road and the souqs on the other.

"In Deira, Dh100 can still buy you lots of things," says Hassan Abdulraheem, one of the few Emiratis who still works inside the shops and stalls in the Old Souq.

At least 100 years old, it is marked simply as "Al Souq" on road signs. A drawing of a necklace points shoppers to the gold souq further down the road, while a fish icon suffices for the seafood souq.

The souqs are traditional in style, with rows of shops in narrow zig-zagging pathways and wooden roofs.

"Every kind of store you can think of is here in Deira," says Mr Abdulraheem, who is in his 50s. "If Dubai Creek is the heart, then Deira is one of the main veins pumping blood and life into the emirate."

Mr Abdulraheem has been running his family spice and herb shop, called Mohammed Ali Abbas Trading Co, for more than 35 years. The store has passed from generation to generation and is as old as the souq in which it stands. This section of the souq recalls the key role played by Deira in the global herb and spice trade.

"Deira is very important historically as it was a major link in the world's historic trade routes and was the location of one of this region's biggest markets," says Dr Hasan Al Naboodah, an Emirati historian and the dean of libraries at UAE University in Al Ain.

"It is at Dubai Creek and its surrounding areas that the story of Dubai started."

While the skyline features many modern buildings and towers, the traditional barajeel - the wind towers of the coral stone houses - can still be seen peeking out from behind the markets.

One such building is Heritage House. The traditional home, built in 1890, measures 41x24 metres and consists of two floors overlooking a rectangular courtyard.

Next to it is the Ahmadiya School, built in 1912 by Sheikh Ahmad bin Dalmouk, after who it is named.

The oldest semi-official school in Dubai, it was renovated in 1995 and opened to the public in 2000 as a museum to display its role in educating some of the country's most prominent figures, including a number of sheikhs.

Because of its historic significance, Deira is one of the districts included in a file that pitches Dubai Creek's case for inclusion on Unesco's World Heritage list. Unesco's decision is expected in June 2014.

Deira may also have played a role in naming the emirate "Dubai".

One theory posted on the webpage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and the Ruler of Dubai, is that "the word Dubai is a combination of the Farsi words for two and brothers, the latter referring to Deira and Bur Dubai".

But the origin of the name Deira is a matter of debate, with some claiming it came from the Arabic word "deyar", meaning house; while others say it comes from the Arabic word "estedara", meaning roundness, and refers to the way the creek shapes the land.

A third group believes the roundness refers to the movement of those who do business there.

"It is like a beehive here," says Ahmed Ahmed, who works on a boat transporting various machinery items. "We go around in circles, back and forth between our dhows and the markets of Deira."

Boxes with washing machines, television sets, and all kinds of hardware and glassware pile up near the dhows, with workers using trolleys to take the goods across the heavy traffic.

"Some of what you see in malls first comes here but then they sell it at very high prices," says Mr Ahmed. "Best to come and just buy from Deira. Cheaper."

But not everything is so cheap. Walk through the wooden archway welcoming visitors to "Dubai's city of gold", and the story is very different.

"Gold never goes out of fashion," says Bhavin Sagar, the owner of Shantilal, a family-run business that has operated from the gold souq for more than 50 years.

"It is tradition to buy gold in some cultures, for special occasions such as weddings and births, and they don't stop buying because of price changes."

But one thing that makes gold shopping different in Deira is that the shopkeepers are open to bargaining.

"We know people come here expecting to bargain. It is part of the Deira experience to be able to haggle and get a good deal," says Mr Sagar with a smile. "It is what makes Deira special."