Dubai is a city of luxury and excess, skyscrapers and mind-boggling architecture. It’s basically the ultimate man-made playground.
But as we know, all cities have to start from somewhere. So is there anywhere where you can experience a Dubai before the artificial extravagance?
“Go to Old Dubai,” my Airbnb host said. “it’s the only area where you can see what Dubai used to be like.”
Old Dubai is known for its souk (or marketplaces). They used to be the epicenter of the community, but now exist more or less for tourists. Still, it sounded interested to see. And I love local markets, so I planned an afternoon of wandering through the markets and streets of Old Dubai.
I started my explorations at the famous Deira Gold Souk across the Dubai Creek. The Gold Souk is the largest marketplace to buy gold in the UAE (or maybe even in the world?).
Not a second after I stepped inside the gold market was I approached by a young man, asking me to come look at his shop. “No thanks, I’m just browsing,” I said.
“No just come in to look,” he insisted. “If you like, you buy. If not, you can go. I’m not trying to push you.”
When I kept on saying no and walk away, he followed me. I emphasized I’m really just here to look and enjoy the atmosphere, not to buy anything. He still followed.
I was still trying to figure out how to shake the guy, when he asked, “Want to see a dress made of gold?”
Sure, why not.
The gold market has over 300 stores all selling gold of all manners. Every single storefront is positively dripping with gold. Heavy statement necklaces, rolls of gold bangles, strands of dainty gold chains. I wanted to stop and admire and take photos, but he led me quickly past all of those.
We stopped in front of a storefront that has a mannequin draped in a gold dress. I took a couple of pictures.
“Let me show you the world’s biggest gold ring now,” he said, ushering me on.
Again, he led me straight past the row of shops, to the very last store at the end by the exit. There in the storefront, was a huge gold ring on display.
He went inside and got me a pamphlet. This ring, called the Star of Taiba, is the largest ring in the world and made with 58.7 kg of 21-karat gold, and mounted with an additional 5.17 kg of Swarovski stones. (Yes, that’s from the pamphlet.)
Picture snapped, he led me out of the market and down the street. “Now lets go to the spice market,” he said.
At this point, I resigned myself to the fact that he wants to play tour guide. He walked the block toward the spice market. We chatted a little on the way. His name is Ali and he’s from Afghanistan and has been living in Dubai for about 10 years. He’s a bit younger than me at 27 and seemed shocked when I said I’m already 30.
“Why don’t you come with me. I’ll show you around,” he said.
“No I really don’t want to buy anything. I’m only here to explore this area.”
“I know,” Ali said. “I don’t want your money.”
“Then what do you want? I’m only here to look around, do you understand?”
“Yes, I know. I want you. Do YOU understand?”
Wait…what? Now, how does a normal person respond to something like that? So I say, “What do you mean?”
“I want you,” he reiterated. “I want to be your friend.”
Let me interject to say that I was dressed completely modestly. Frumpy, even. In a long skirt going all the way down to my ankles, and a long sleeved hoodie, as it was a bit chilly that day. And bare faced with no makeup. I know better than to dress provocatively. Which is also the reason why I had been wearing the exact same outfit for 4 days straight… because I felt like nothing else in my luggage was suitable.
At this point, we had arrived at the spice market, which sits right on the bank of the Dubai Creek. Immediately, you’re hit with the intoxicating scent of dozens of spices mingling. Along every storefront are heaps of spices, herbs, and flowers in all colors.
Ali led me straight to a shop I assume is run by his friend, Mohammed. Mohammed gave me different spices to sniff. Sharp citrusy scent of dried lemon, sweet Madagascar vanilla, pungent curry powders. When I thanked him and said I don’t cook and won’t be buying any, he smiled, shook my hand, and said nice to meet you.
Ali led me out again. “Let me take you to the creek so you can take some pictures.”
The creek is across a small street, and you can either wait for the traffic light or use the underpass. He led me through the underpass. I saw other people coming out of it, so I figured it was safe to go in. But at one point the underpass emptied of other people and it was just the two of us. He put his arm around me and before I saw anything coming –
He kissed me.
On my cheek, but I’m not sure if that’s only because I turned away at the last second. He then reached to take my hand.
“I really like you,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you,” I stammered, pulling my hand away. Wait… why am I the one apologizing?!
“I understand, and I don’t want you to be scared of me,” he said, as we resurfaced on the street level, where (thankfully), there are tons of people around.
He backed off after that, and made no more attempts at physical contact in the presence of others. We stood by the creek and chatted for a bit longer. He said he’d like to show me around Dubai, take me to eat and watch the traditional dancing. I lied and said I’m only here for 3 days, and this is already my 2nd day.
“I’m sorry if I’m being so pushy,” he said. “If you lived here, we can take it slow. But it’s only because you’re leaving soon, so I have to be forward.”
I thanked him for showing me around, and he said to call him next time I’m back in Dubai. We shook hands, and he walked away in the direction of his shop.
And I was left kind of baffled by the encounter.
I wandered through the spice market one more time at my own pace. Now alone, I was hassled by almost every single store owner who wants me to go in to sniff their spices. One man came up and sang and danced around me while his buddies laughed playfully. I wanted to go back to the gold souk to take the pictures I didn’t get to take, but decided that I really couldn’t deal with any more of these shenanigans.
So instead, I take the ferry across the creek.
The local ferry is one of the most fun things to do! It only costs 1 dirham to get across the creek. There’s a mix of commuter locals and curious tourists alike. The ferry dropped us off on the other side right at the entrance of the textile souk.
But first, I was intent on getting a good shot of the seagulls that seem to gather around this dock.
I steeled myself for the excursion into the textile souk. Again, I was hassled by every single store owner, this time telling me to come inside to look at their pashmina and llama scarves.
The textile souk is a colorful market selling everything from beautifully embroidered cushions to Bedouin headscarves to cheap touristy elephant pants. You can also get the typical souvenir items like magnets, Burj Khalifa figurines, and Aladdin lamps.
On a whole, I think the souks are interesting but very touristy. Maybe once upon a time, these are the center of life of the town where people gathered and chatted and did business. But now, only tourists ever go there. And to compete for business (as every single shop sells the exact same things), the store owners are forced to resort to hassle to hopefully entice customers to choose their shop. I understand, I really do. But I wish the experience is still a bit more relaxed and pleasant.
I did have one good encounter. In one storefront, a tiny kitten eating cereal caught my eye. As I bent down to pet this tiny little creature, I chatted with the Pakistani store owner, who told me that the kitten used to have 4 siblings who all have died. We ended up having a nice conversation. He never pressured me to buy anything, and I walked away feeling happy.
I think, perhaps, traveling as a single female in Dubai does have its minor inconveniences (in certain parts). I didn’t see couples, groups, or single men get hassled nearly as much. It got tiresome and uncomfortable at times, though in no way threatening. I really wanted to be able to slowly browse and take pictures in peace, but I didn’t get to. I guess that’s all part of the souk experience.
But still, I think walking around old Dubai makes for an interesting afternoon. Just don’t be surprised by all the unwarranted attention if you’re a solo female. But I have to say that as a whole, Dubai feels extremely safe to wander around as a girl, even at late hours of the night. I never felt scared or unsafe anywhere.
I was going to write about the rest of my old Dubai experience, like visiting the Old Dubai Museum (which was very nicely done) and the Bastakiya (where you can see the original walls), but that’ll have to be later, as this post is already long and I’m tired.
So I’m signing off with this… have you ever experienced hassle or unwanted attention like this anywhere on your travels? Have you been to a souk and what was your experience?