Creative The Aib Issue

Non-fiction: Hot alleys and treasure hunts

One woman’s colorful childhood memories of Dubai’s Gold Souk.

By Leena Al Marzouqi

Artwork (featuring Yara Ayoob) by Bahraini Yara Ayoob and Emirati Maryam Alzaabi.

My head hurt because my hair braid was too tight and the pink accessory hanging off my hair tie kept hitting my back. But, I did not have time to loosen it. In one hand, I firmly held my lollipop, and in the other I held my mother’s hand. We were walking in a hurry today and I remained quiet – something I often did as a child– as my mother and my sister discussed their plan for the day.

The streets were filled with the hustle and bustle of people, cars and carts of boxes being hauled off by labourers. Mum had parked far away today and we were going through different alleys to reach the Gold Souk (traditional market). To this day, I have yet to decipher the route of the shortcuts that my mother uses to lead us to the Souk. As usual, I was slowing them down with my little scrawny legs. Mum looked down at me and gently said, “Leena, I need you to move faster okay?”

It always felt like a mission that needed to be completed in time; whenever we went to the Gold Souk, I had to be fast because we only had two hours and then mama had to get back home and prepare lunch. That day she had promised me my favorite, beef stew with okra.

I nodded to mama and picked up my pace. I knew we were close because young, dodgy men approached us and silently told us that they had counterfeit bags. My sister always told them off, while mama always implored her to ignore them. The bright and colorful displays of gold greeted us and we looked at one window after another for a few minutes until my sister pointed out something that she liked.

We have been going to the Gold Souk for as long as I can remember, and my sister always chooses the prettiest – albeit the most expensive – jewellery. This was a trait that I inherited as I grew older but, as a child, I did not find a lot of appeal in gold. She pointed at a simple, yet elegant gold necklace with matching earrings, and mama pushed us into the shop. I found my trusty old friend, a brownish-black chair, at the corner of the store and I sat on it as my mum and sister greeted the shop owner. I got comfortable in my seat and started unwrapping my lollipop. I even loosened my braid. My sister turned to mama and tilted her head to her. We can’t speak in any language that we know, especially Arabic, because the shop owners understand all the common languages. The rule has always been to not show them that you like a piece because then it would be impossible to get a bargain. The head tilt meant that she liked it.

Mum began haggling and it took the shopkeeper a few minutes to realise that he was dealing with a professional. My favourite part has been – and still is – when mum takes the shopkeeper’s calculator and starts punching in numbers. My sister often giggles at the shock on the shop owner’s face but mama knows it’s just a ploy to not go any lower. Eventually they reach an agreement and, as a thank you, we are offered paper cups filled with karak (tea with milk).

My mother fixed her sheila (headscarf) and ushered me to come towards her. I leapt off the creaky chair and walked to her. “Yes mama?”

“Why don’t you pick something?” she asked me.

I shook my head. “No, thank you.”

My sister then started the lecture of ‘gold is not only pretty but is also eternal’. But, as she spoke, a small heart-shaped pendant caught my eye and I pointed it out.

Mama smiled. “A heart again?”

I was obsessed with heart-shaped things as a child. I believed that our souls were directly connected to our hearts and therefore anything heart-shaped would have a soul too. It didn’t need much haggling; it was really small and was added to the purchase. I was so excited that I wore it then and there.

Some of my best memories are running through hot alleys in Deira, watching men sell drinks on small, silver trays outside brightly lit shops; the charm of the shop owners, my mother’s magic as she easily brought the price down to half of what the owner had asked for and the smell of karak filling the shop after finding earrings fit for a princess.

Nowadays, whenever I enter a jewellery store that isn’t in the Gold Souk, I find it hard to buy anything. I especially find it hard to buy anything online. Often, I deal with a jeweller that tries to rip me off or claims to be a ‘designer’. No one really understands how gold is eternal or, better yet, no one understands that the experience of buying a piece of jewellery is half of the fun. Sure, designer pieces are beautiful. Yet, I cannot help smile when I get complimented on a pair of bracelets that I once found hidden in the corner of a small shop in the Gold Souk. Whenever I’m asked where I had gotten them from, I give a mysterious smile and tell them that I got them on a treasure hunt; that I found them hidden deep in the windowpane of a random store. Somehow, no one finds my answers peculiar.

If I had to choose between the hot alleys and cramped stores and the comfort of a click on my phone, I would always pick the hot alleys. I’d rather be old fashioned when it comes to this.

Leena Al Marzouqi is a 27-year-old Emirati storyteller. She loves writing, reading and learning. Her aspiration is to become a published author and she is currently working on her first novel.