Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Thriller of a Tale - Friendly Fleecing at the Dubai Fish Souq

Al Ras section of Dubai
Since I am on hold awaiting deliveries for ALL the furniture and curtains I have bought, I decide it is time to take a break from “have-to” duties, be brave and do some exploring on my own. 

So today, since Roger has previously expressed NO interest in taking me to the Gold Souq, I decide this is a good place to start. A girl can never have toooo much gold!  

Getting really bold, I add the nearby Fish and Vegetable Souq to the excursion. This entire journey will take me to the area of Al Ras in the old part of Dubai.
However, I must first complete a very important mission – get our GPS working! I cannot possibly face another humiliating weekend as navigator without an operational GPS. 

I have managed to register our GPS online and purchase the Middle East/North Africa map, but my attempts to download it into the device are beyond my meager tech skills. Thanks to the Internet, I am able to locate a store in Dubai that specializes in Garmins and I’m told to bring it in and they will help. Since they do not use street addresses in Dubai, I am told the shop is on the Creek side of Baniyas Road by the St. George Hotel.

St. George Hotel - in the distance

Thankfully the taxi driver knows where to take me . . . kind of.  He drops me off at a spot where I can see the hotel in the far distance and instructs me to just walk there! - “Not far lady!” I want to tell him, “Sure, you try that walk with no cartilage in your knees!” Instead I decide that complaining will get me nowhere; not to mention the fact that we don't speak the same language. 

After roaming around a few alleyways, I find the GPS store. The young Emirati gentleman is quite patient with me.  I have discovered this is a national trait when dealing with dazed and confused older American women. He quickly – how embarrassing – downloads the map and reprograms the GPS to work in this part of the world. Next, he sets me up with the coordinates for the Gold Souq and finally, sends me on my way telling me it is only a 5 - 10 minute walk. By the way, no charge for this service! Can you imagine this in the USA?

I think the Emirati concept of time and distance is different from ours, perhaps it was all those years roaming around the desert, because after walking quite some time in 103 degree heat, I give up and hail a taxi that graciously drops me off at the Gold Souq’s front door. I had envisioned the Souq as dusty alleyways of rustic stalls filled with gold at irresistible prices.  NOT! 

The Souq is made up of small dark walkways with lots of gold, but it is a collection of jewelry stores and the prices were NOT bargains. I think gold is hovering around $1300 an ounce. However, the jewelry designs are amazing, and I enjoy window shopping. 
Well, it is time to move on and purchase food for dinner. I hail yet another taxi and arrive at the front door of the Fish and Vegetable Souq. Upon exiting the taxi, it becomes obvious we are truly at a fish market--imagine the aroma of fresh fish in 103 degree heat!

I am “greeted” by a very nice Pakistani man named Nassar with a green wheelbarrow who immediately attaches himself to my side. I find out later he is my “coolie.” 

At the first vegetable stall, I inquire about the direction of the fish market only to be told it is closed until 5 PM. Traditional Arabian merchants close during the mid-day hours, but they stay open very late!. Once again I am tripped up by local custom. Undeterred, “Mr. Coolie” says to me “Fish! Fish! Fish!” and points up ahead.

Being the trusting woman I am, and having spent a great deal of energy getting here, I follow. We pass by stalls of beautiful vegetables and fruits to another section of the market filled with white troughs and hanging scales. I assume this is where fish is laid out on ice and offered for sale. At this moment, only Indian and Pakistani laborers in their blue jumpsuits are laying in the troughs taking a quick snooze!  Note: workers in Dubai all wear jumpsuits of varying colors depending on their job. I guess it makes it easier to see who should be doing what job.  

Oh, but not all of them are napping! Mr. Coolie introduces me to a man who says he has fish, “Follow lady! Fish! Fish! Fish!" As we pass though this area, I begin to pick up quite an entourage of assorted men. Nothing like boosting a woman’s ego by being pursued by dozens of men! These gentlemen are all trying to sell me their fish despite the attempts of my personal “fish monger” telling them that I am his “catch!” 

At this point, I am getting a bit nervous since I'm not certain where we are going nor do I see anyone else but me and the ever increasing number of guys in blue. We proceed to a large area behind the fish stall that has what looks to me like above ground septic tanks, or more ominously, the above ground tombs in a New Orleans cemetery

As I follow Mr. Fish Monger to the back side of the fish stalls, we continue to pick-up even more admirers. Reflecting on this scene later, I think: what a great music video this would make! I wish someone had been there with a camera.

What visuals: a nicely dressed (first mistake) American grandmother walking with her coolie and his bright green wheelbarrow through the shaded Dubai Vegetable Market with its vibrantly colored stalls of fruits and vegetables. They turn the corner to enter the Fish Market that has rows and rows of sparkling white troughs with hanging scales, and men in bright royal blue jumpsuits lying in the troughs taking their mid-day siestas. The camera pans to the ever increasing crowd of Middle Eastern men in blue
jumpsuits (think Michael Jackson Thriller style entourage) who have joined the inquisitive American grandmother’s trek into the sunlight towards the back area of the fish market. 

Confronted with the vision of rows and rows of dark blue tanks that remind her of the above ground tombs in New Orleans graveyards, the grandmother hesitates but then is carried forward by the momentum of her entourage! 
Anyone know a great tune for this scene?

We navigate between the “tombs” until we come to Mr. Fish Monger's tank. This is where the vendors keep their fish on ice while they wait to sell them. Now I have about 30 men all talking to
me in some language offering what I think is seafood. They could be propositioning me for something else, but it is obvious that I am a “delicious morsel” and a feeding frenzy is in progress. 

I focus on Mr. Fish Monger and tell him I want Hamour – a local fish similar to grouper – Roger’s favorite! Mr. Fish Monger produces a large whole fish, and eventually I figure out he is asking me how many fish I wish to purchase. He really doesn’t want to accept my request for one, and it takes some time for him to understand that ONE is my “final answer.”

I try to appease him with a request for 4 of the very large shrimp. He beckons to a compatriot--“Mr. Shrimp.” My attempts to purchase only 4 shrimps do not work, but what the hell! Since I didn’t get all the gold I wanted, let's go for shrimp.

OK, next step is getting the fish cleaned. Well don’t you know, there is another enterprising young man who proudly steps through the crowd and announces he is the fish-cleaner! But first, I must pay up:  dhs 100 for the fish and dhs 130 for the shrimp.  

Doing the math to convert from dhs to $US so I know what I am paying is difficult with all the men pressing around me so I just pay the bill as is.  Later in the taxi ride home I realize I paid $63 for the seafood, but I console myself knowing it will be a wonderful entree for Roger’s dinner.

Mr. Fish Cleaner beckons me to follow. With the entire group still growing, we go deeper into the outback of the market to a place under a truck where he proceeds to skin and filet the fish. While my exquisite Hamour is being cleaned, an assertive, older gentleman begins offering me two beautiful red snappers.  They are truly so tempting, but I havpent almost all of my money (and not a gold bangle in sight.) Plus, I have enough fish for a week so I graciously decline; however, Mr. Snapper will not take no for an answer and continues to push the fish at me. He even lays them down for Mr. Fish Cleaner to work on, but eventually he backs down and reduces the quantity offered to one fish. 

Once my Hamour is cleaned, the fillets are thrown into a plastic bag that has materialized from someone in the crowd.  I don’t even think about where it has been. With a big, endearing smile Mr. Fish Cleaner informs me that I owe him dhs 50 for cleaning the one fish.   Since this comes to $14, I protest weakly.  He meets my protestations with a smile saying, “Lady, I am so poor, and you are so rich.” Then his smile fades as he adds, “Dhs 50 for me and dhs 50 for my assistant.”
While I totally agree with his statement regarding the financial disparity between us, I can’t help but protest this rather hefty fee. Yet the realization sets in that I have to end this adventure, so I pay him his requested fee and tell Mr. Coolie to get me to the vegetable market. The crowd tapers off the
closer we get to the vegetable market, but Mr. Snapper pursues me to the bitter end!   
I purchase a number of items from various vegetable stalls and everything looks beautiful, but I have to come to grips with the fact that I barely have enough money for the taxi ride home.

I inform Mr. Coolie that I need a taxi, and he points to another area in the far distance. I am a bit confused because the cab dropped me off right here, but I dutifully follow him through the entire market, over an expressway overpass to the taxi stand. Need I remind you of the lack of cartilage in my knees!!! 

The first three taxis refuse to take me when they realize I have fish! Finally, I let the driver know that I am going to Dubai Marina – a very sizable fare - and he agrees to open his taxi’s trunk.
During the course of the adventure, Mr. Coolie has produced a Styrofoam cooler for my fish, I think how sweet and considerate until he informs me that the cooler costs dhs 60.  So I give him dhs 60 for the cooler and dhs 20 for his assistance.  “No, no lady!  60 cooler; 60 coolie.” This is where I learn that I have had a personal coolie. Aware that he has watched me spend money at an alarming rate, I give him what he asks for as well as an additional dhs 20 for the joy of the experience!
I settle in for a relaxing ride home.  Well no ride is relaxing with a taxi driver on the Sheikh Zayed Road. Think I-95 on steroids! More adventures to come! Love you all!  

Post Script . .  Dinner was marvelous.  I used the recipe “Fish in a Hot Saffron and Ginger Tomato Sauce” (pg 186) from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Many thanks to my best friend and head chef Anne Platt for gifting me with this wonderful cookbook when I left for Dubai.

Post Script . . . recent news articles have made me aware of the fact that Hamour is at the top of the overfished list here. This delicious species is being overfished at 7 times above its sustainable levels. Hamour is now officially off the Foster’s menu. Recently made this same dish with fresh Grouper and it was yummy.
Post Script . . . many thanks to my new friend Wendy Mervis Burke who took me back to the Fish Souq to get photos for this tale as I was in such a state as the events unfolded no photos were taken.  



  1. Don't stop now - love these tales!

  2. That's a great story! Next time, try Lulu. The fish is always fresh (except where clearly noted) the price is around 20/kilo or about $2.50/pound, and they clean it for free.

  3. Since my trip to the Fish Souq I have found other sources that are a little easier to manage. But, when I am in the neighborhood, I still go back to buy my fish at the souq because it is always so much fun.

  4. Hi Katie,
    Love your fish story!I chuckled and symphatised... you poor thing.:)) Nice photos

  5. I just love the thrill of the adventure!!! Wouldn't change a thing!

  6. I have discovered your blog today and I love it!! You make very beautiful things and your tutorials are very good

    Musandam Dibba