Rob Garratt pays a visit to the local fish market to meet the traders keeping traditional practices alive. Photos Rajesh Raghav
In fast-paced, ultra-modern Dubai, where rarely a month goes by without another glitzy high-rise sprouting from the desert, it’s easy to lose track of the city’s heritage. Long before the emirate became a hub for luxury tourism, it was best known as a nucleus of trade, the flow of dhows in and out of creek feeding the ‘old Dubai’ souks that still buzz with life today. Alongside the herbs, cloths and other imports, the creekside has always utilised its easy access into the Arabian Gulf to host lively stalls selling fresh seafood. In decades past, fish stalls lined the edge of the Gold Souk in Deira, until 26 years ago when a purpose-built, standalone market was built on the reclaimed land that forms the neighbouring corniche.
Dubai Fish Market features 180 counters, selling everything from kingfish and sardines to shark
Today, a visit to Dubai’s fish market is still a sensory assault, and a timely reminder of both how much and how little has changed. The eyes are awakened by rows of exotic fish and seafood; rows of kingfish, hammour and sardines piled next to colourful squid, octopus and even sharks. Meanwhile the ears are struck by the rhythmic clanking of metal on metal as traders skilfully slice huge specimens into sellable chunks, the aggressive ‘slap’ rising over the steady hubbub of traders advertising their wares vocally to passing customers. And then there’s the smell: the waft of marine life can be sensed far away from the large open-plan complex that makes up the market. Inside the room itself, it’s almost overpoweringly fishy.
Pakistani supervisor Addilah Karim has worked at the fish market for 35 years
The market is made up of 180 counters, which licensed traders rent monthly from the authorities. Traders tell me the stalls cost anything from Dhs1,000 to Dhs8,000 a month to rent, depending on location. Behind the market is a separate area selling dried and salted fish, with sections for cleaning, freezing and cutting the produce. Grey-haired supervisor Addilah Karim has been overseeing fish cutting for 35 years. ‘There’s been a lot of change in this city,’ says the 50-year-old Pakistani. ‘I see the city developing a lot – through that, I see it brings more customers.’
Much of the fish and shellfish caught in Dubai is brought to the market live
The market officially opens at 7.30am, but many of the traders are up hours before. The first of the morning’s deliveries arrive around midnight, beginning a steady stream as fresh fish arrives from as far away as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The bulk of fish sold is caught in the Gulf of Oman, but locally sourced produce, caught off the coasts of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and nearby Jumeirah, commands a higher price.
Mohammed Bilal (left) and Shahzad Ahmed work here to send money back to their families in Pakistan
‘Dubai’s fish comes live,’ says trader Altaf Hussein. ‘It’s better because it’s fresher – when the fish comes, it is still moving.’ The Pakistani trader, 24, is standing behind a huge pile of hundreds of fish of all shapes and sizes, but he knows he’ll sell out by closing time. He estimates he’ll sell 1,200 fish today. ‘There’s no day off for me,’ he adds. ‘I’m working all the time.’
Main image: a very content UAE resident. Inset: Altaf Hussein, 24, a trader from Pakistan, expects to sell more than 1,000 fish today
Talking to the traders, it becomes clear that Altaf’s story isn’t uncommon, with most traders saying they start in the early hours of the morning, sleeping between 1pm and 4pm when the market cools down, then carrying on through to near-midnight. But the traders we speak to, most of whom live in shared rooms in nearby Deira, all tell their tale with a smile on their face.
Many traders start work early in the morning, and continue until midnight
‘Working here is good,’ proclaims 27-year-old Shahzad Ahmad, arranging rows of juicy tuna. ‘Too much money here,’ his friend Mohammed Bilal chirps in. ‘Good money,’ explains Shahzad. ‘You send it home to your family – one man working here is like five people in Pakistan,’ adds Mohammed.
The fish market features a separate section for freezing, drying and cutting
While we’re talking, I turn around to see a live crab being thrust in my face, its ten legs flailing. I’ve met the practical joker of the market: Rama Omardraz tells me he’s been working here for 16 years, sending money home to his six children. ‘When I’m old I go back to my country, then my son will come here and do my work,’ says the 42-year-old Pakistani, proudly gesturing at his rows of fish, crab, squid and more. We hope Rama is right – long may the fish market live on. The fish market is open Sat-Thu 7.30am-1pm, Fri 4pm-11pm. Deira Corniche, opposite the Gold Souk (no number).
Two more places to discover the past Dhow Wharfage Head down to the stretch of the Deira creekside between the Sheraton hotel and Al Maktoum Bridge to see traders loading up traditional dhows.
Dubai Camel Market Visit before 11am to catch the noisy, chaotic market in full swing. Open daily 7am-10pm. Lisaili area, next to Dubai Camel Racing Club, Dubai-Al Ain Road.