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.
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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.
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
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.