Souk is the very fabric of society

Plenty of tourists pass through Dubai's textile souk, but few are spending. Behind closed doors, however, wholesalers are at work in traditionally their busiest time of the year.

The period before Ramadan and Eid al Fitr is the busiest of the year for the textile shops in the fabric souk in Dubai.
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DUBAI // Kunal Deuani sits in the air-conditioned office of Sohaj Trading, at the busiest end of Dubai's textile souk, patting away tell-tale signs of the already sweltering heat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

It is a little after 8.30am but, he acknowledges, it is already far cooler inside than out on the winding, cobbled alleyways where shopkeepers in sweat-sprinkled shirts and tunics are busy setting up for yet another day's trade. The 27-year-old Indian has been selling fabric to traders from around the world for six years from a small office in the busiest part of Dubai's oldest shopping area, near the Bur Dubai abra station.

"People travel here from all over the world to buy because if the customer goes to India he will only get Indian fabric," he says. "In Dubai they get a lot of choice. There are traders from different countries based here - from India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh." The two months preceding Ramadan and Eid al Fitr, he says, are traditionally the busiest for Dubai's textile industry, with shop and factory owners from across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Russia, India and Pakistan arriving to do business.

Much of the wholesale trading, however, is invisible to the scores of tourists who weave their way through the 4,000 square foot souk on weekend mornings. They do so to a soundtrack of sales pitches for everything from shisha and pashminas to belly dancing costumes and watches. Unlike their noisier neighbours, the wholesalers close shop at the weekend, managing their businesses discreetly behind glass doors on the rows of offices lining the market. The scene changes on weekdays, when those peering through the windows of the shop fronts can see businessmen bartering gently with long-standing clients over Arabic tea and coffee.

Out in the morning heat, retailers prepare their shops with care, precision and unyielding vigour as the sun rises over the traditional cream-coloured stone buildings. Among them is Bunty Kumar Blochi, 28, an Indian who has been working at Pitumal Pradeep Textiles Trading, his cousin's shop, for more than three years. Every morning he and his colleagues prepare the large air-conditioned haven containing an array of brightly coloured goods, including intricate Indian wall hangings, handmade bed spreads and clothing, for the new day. While the six-year-old shop is filled with tourists most weekends, Mr Blochi and his colleague say business of late has not been as good as in previous years.

"You see these T-shirts?" he asks, holding up a yellow garment with a Dubai slogan. "Once tourists would pay Dh100 for this. Now we charge Dh7 and they don't want it. The tourists who come here don't have any money to spend." Handmade bedspreads that once sold for at least Dh700 now sell for closer to Dh200, as people restrict their budgets, he says. "Before we would have no time to do anything on a Friday, it would be so busy, but now we have time to sit outside," Mr Blochi says. "There is a lot of competition but no business, and the rent has gone up."

In the Antalia gift shop, part of the 75-year-old Bayt Al Wakeel restaurant complex, three Japanese tourists prepare to negotiate with the Afghan shop assistant, Shanu Khan, for a small gold-plated replica of the Burj Khalifa they have been admiring. The 12 to 13 hours that Mr Aswani works every day are interlaced with similar colourful exchanges with international customers who see the bartering process as an integral part of the shopping experience at the textile souk. "The Spanish are very good at it," he says, laughing. "The Germans are also very good. I very much enjoy meeting all of these different people."

That is true for those who own multiple shops as well. In one of four businesses he operates from the souk, surrounded by a colourful array of silk pashminas, Pradeep Aswani, 23, is hoping that late September will bring reinvigorated trading as thoughts return to more secular matters after Ramadan and Eid. While wholesale trade is down, the retail side of his business chain - namely selling handmade Indian crafts - is a little better, he says. Still, he enjoys his place in the bustling souk. "A lot of Europeans are coming here during the summer on a Friday and Saturday," he says. "Ramadan will be quiet, of course, but it is a very busy life. I really like it."