I’d long heard about this mystical neighbourhood in the older part of Dubai called Naïf. It’s a very unassuming sounding place, presumably with lots of little one way streets, mobile phone shops, bargain stores, honking of horns, scores of pedestrians and snarling traffic – not the kind of place you’d want to get stuck in the heat.
And to be fair, it was pretty much like that… but oh so much, much more! I had learned that Naïf was home to a pretty decent haberdashery market, so spurred on by equal doses of creative energy, caffeine and a need for adventure I hit the road…
45 minutes of traffic later I found myself at the entrance to narrow, unnamed alleyway. It was relatively quiet at that time of morning, with a few porters and men of the trade passing by. At first it looked innocent enough, a shop with a few rolls of fabric and samples on display outside the entrance…
And then I crossed the threshold and into a whole new world!!!
I had come to Naïf looking for a handful of charms to start adding to my jewellery creations, perhaps some more beads to add to my modest stash, some bits and pieces for the odd project on the go. But nothing had prepared me for this! The second store I visited was a veritable cornucopia of cut glass delight! Strings of every conceivable colour, shape and size adorned the walls and crevices of the narrow room. “More upstairs!” the enthusiastic storekeeper called after me.
I was in awe. I summoned a small voice from somewhere deep inside to inquire as to the price… 30 dirhams ($NZ12) came the reply. Not that cheap at all really. I was a little disappointed. Oh but I can find that cheaper elsewhere! It was only then that I figured out the wonder of this place… for this is a wholesale market, and it was not $12 for a single string of these beads, but $12 for a bundle of 10 strings!!!! My mind was churning. I was trying to figure out the maths!!! The beads were all twinkling, winking at me.
I ventured further on. And then I discovered the bags of beads… let’s have a closer look…
This bag of beautiful rose gold cut glass beads… 7,200 beads!!! (At least that’s what I thought he had said!!!) at an eyewateringly ridiculous price of NZ$36!!!! Even if it was actually 720, well I mean to say!
But wait, there’s more…
Entire bags of the stuff! By now I was having a bit of trouble stifling a laugh. I couldn’t concentrate. I suggested to my friendly storekeeper that I needed to go out and get some air, drink a coffee and try to figure out what I wanted. “Oh I can bring you coffee! How do you like?” was his reply. But it was too late… my eyes were beginning to ache, I was on the verge of more nervous laughter and I had to get out!
I figured I could do some serious investment in his store, and promised to return, but as soon as I stepped out of his shop I walked smack bang into the face of the Swarovski store!
Oh, oh, I thought… this is good, it’ll be far too expensive for me to shop here, but alas, prices and range were even better here than with my first guy! As long as I was willing to buy in bulk that is, what with this being a wholesale kind of place….
But where to begin? What colour? What size? What shape?!
And what about the loose stones?
“And where are you from?” a curious voice inquired from somewhere over the mountains of jewels. “I have many English speaking customers but your accent is different…?” And just my luck I found myself in the company of a pair of charming young Pakistanis. “Whitewash!!!!!” came the enthusiastic reply. I smiled back, slightly embarrassed, and skulked around the corner. For the NZ cricket team are currently in the UAE (current home ground of the Pakistani team) for a pre World Cup tournament against Pakistan and just suffered a resounding 3-0 loss in the T20 tournament). A right whitewash! At this rate we won’t even qualify 😂
I returned to the jewels. I had to focus. Just as I thought I was able to make a decision, my new friend started to slide back the shelf I was salivating in front of to reveal not one, but two hidden walls full of strings….!!
I was laughing again. But some how managed to overcome my indecision, break the seal and conclude my first purchase. All $20 of it. In a Swarovski shop 😂
It felt good. By the time I’d left the shop and stumbled 4 metres across the alley and into the next haberdashery store I’d regained enough composure to stop and remember what I was really looking for on this trip… charms!
And it was here I met the charming Jain from Kabul who understood my accent well enough to escort me up a couple of flights in his multi-storey emporium to enter the thrilling and mysterious world of wholesale haberdashery. The early morning sunlight was filtering in, and I had to catch my breath at the sight unfolding in front of me…
Literally row upon row of super neat floor to ceiling boxes stacked up and up and up, all proudly displaying their sample wares… I didn’t know where to look! Charms, buttons, brocade trims, buckles… it was a serious Aladdin’s Cave and this was only one of (at least) three floors…squeeeee!!!!
We introduced ourselves and talked affably as he guided me with pride around his own personal kingdom. He was from Kabul but had been in Dubai now for many, many years. A great business this one! We talked about our kids, and his grandkids (the guy is only 42!). He has 6 kids and me only 1 lol!
We talked about the cricket and the reasons why Afghanistan is playing so well – the new champion batsman Rashid Khan!! It’s getting pretty serious there now – one of his sons is having cricket training sponsored by the Afghani government. We talked about New Zealand and what it’s like. Afghanistan is surrounded by five different countries, New Zealand is an island!
We talked about Iran, in particular Isfahan – a notoriously beautiful city – which Eric is desperate to visit. Jain told me yes it was indeed an amazing city and that he had lived there!!
We wandered around some more until I was satisfied enough to have seen everything in order to make an informed decision.
Some seriously cool patches…
But yes I was rather perturbed to encounter THIS!!!!
Is it really…. cat?!!!!
“Synthetic of course”, hoping to make me feel a bit better.
I chose some charms, but was startled to see they only come in packets of 70s, 100s, and even 1,000s for the smaller ones!!! ” But I only want 5!” I exclaimed, but it’s wholesale you see…
Ever the gentleman Jain made me a really good offer, and armed with my new purchases and 25m of gold brocade trim we headed back downstairs towards the cashier to conclude my modest transaction.
And so it was with a happy heart that I stepped back out into the light and hubbub of the narrow alley and onwards with my adventure.
What next? Tassels! Yes I do actually need some tassels. And so I found myself yet again transfixed by the brilliance of floor to ceiling brocades, trims and tassels. So narrow was this shop that there was standing room only and I couldn’t get my grubby little mitts anywhere near most of the stock!
Luckily the types of tassels I was looking for came beautifully displayed on large cards at my feet… but oh so many options! Silky?! Matt?! India?! Turkey?! Colour?!
“How much?” I nervously stuttered. “8” came the reply… um, ok, I need 8 in total (for some cushions I’m meant to be making), but can I justify 64 dirhams ($24) for 8 tassels? “Um, that much?” I stammered back. “Pack of 12 ma’am”.
So that’d be like 25 cents a pop… doh!
Sheepishly, but immensely satisfied I said my shukrans and salams and left. The next stop was into a wide open and welcoming one-stop-shop. This time there were other customers inside, a pair of ladies in brightly coloured cotton capes with hoods and full skirts. I’d seen this style of dress around Dubai before, but I had no idea of its origin…
(Too nervous to ask for a photo, here’s one from Google instead…)
I was so intrigued I had to ask where they were from. “India!” they exclaimed! “It’s our community dress”. I later went on to discover that they are Bohras, a sub sect of Shi’a Islam, originating in Gujarat, they are a very close knit community and excellent businesspeople. And this became apparent by the assertive manner in which they were negotiating!
And so further in walks the wide eyed solo Kiwi to become to new centre of attention. “Where are you from?!” came the first excited exchange. “No, where are you from?” came my reply. Knowing exactly where this might lead I kept this up until the young shopkeepers acquiesced enough to reply “India!”, allowing me to comfortably admit to my origins.
Luckily enough they weren’t from Pakistan! Although it wasn’t long before the conversation fast forwarded to our shared point of reference. At least I didn’t have to scramble around attempting to find some excuse for the abysmal performance of the Black Caps but instead could enjoy some really fun banter and the surrounding visual feast. Once again my eyes were drawn beyond the sparkly bags of sequins, cards of ornate trims, and giant spools of threads to the strings of brilliantly coloured beads…
After some considered bargaining (often not permitted in the wholesale environment), I decided upon a few strings of amazing fuschia pink cut glass for $3. “Churrs mutt!” came the reply. I looked up into the bright smiling face of one of the young guys. Sorry what? “Churrs mutt!” he exclaimed again. “You know” he said – “Stephen Fleming!!!!” (former NZ cricket captain now coaching in the Indian Premier League). Aaaah I said, I think you mean “Cheers mate!!”
I left the aptly named “Small Dream” shop grinning from ear to ear and tried to concentrate on what I needed to find next. Yes, it was thread, to string my new creations together! And I was in luck for somehow I had ended up smack bang in the middle of the thread market, with giant spools and reels of brilliantly coloured rayons and bias beckoning at me from all corners of the street!
It was overwhelming. Which colours? How many? My mind wasn’t clear, the shear expanse of choice got me all confused. But somehow I was able to make a purchase. Out I came with just a single giant reel at the huge expense of $1.22. The struggle was real!!
My next stop was into a curious looking little store with wall to wall packets of beads, this time of the stick-on variety, in every hue imaginable. They also had a handful of strings, but all I wanted was a photograph of the man with the check shirt and amazing hat standing proudly behind the counter. So I paid $4 for 10 string bundle of silver cut glass beads and found the courage to ask him for a photo. From Delhi he was, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I realised I wouldn’t have to talk about the cricket.
As I left his shop, I was still wondering about these giant packs of tiny stick on beads… the size of a pin head. Who bought them and what were they for?!!!
I didn’t have to walk far of course to figure it out…
Racks and racks and stacks of stacks of these bright and spangly exotic little numbers greet you at almost every turn in old Dubai and its tourist trail. But it’s hard to imagine that they’re all made here?
The single main question I had for many of the shopkeepers I chatted with was ‘who are your customers, who buys all this stuff?’. “Everyone!”, “the whole world” was a common reply. “Russians! Americans!”. “Designers!!”, “Are you a designer?” I was rather chuffed at that as I left a store clutching my $4 purchase 😊
Finally I had reached the end of the alleyway. In all I had walked about 300m in all of 2 hours. My eyes were a little fuzzy, but my heart was brimming and my wallet not even dented!
As I paused to regroup I caught a glimpse of a very unusual sight indeed… racks and racks of long dark…. ponytails?! The shop was a quiet, dark, teeny tiny affair with stock cramming every corner. I was in equal parts nervous, repulsed and enthralled. I went in. I looked. I touched. I recoiled! Yes, the shady looking young guy told me, “it’s real”.
Surely yes there were enough split ends to validate his claim. But I was just so uncomfortable. I had to get out. “Beautiful!” I managed to squeak as he thrust his business card into my hand.
It was with a great sigh of relief that I stumbled back out into the light and into frenetic pace of the old city outside. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that this is Dubai. Passing porters loaded with giant sacks on rickety trolleys, hawkers calling out to passersby, juice bars and shawarma shops, people shuffling along dressed in the types of colourful clothes I’ve only previously seen on TV, chit chat in languages I’ll never be able to understand… I could easily believe I’m in downtown Cairo or Karachi, or perhaps now even Kabul. It’s totally amazing and inspiring. I love this place!
Rounding the corner and into a main road I was feeling pretty excited to having completed my Naïf adventure. But oh no, there was more haberdashery to come! Like a moth to a light, I could not resist the magnetic pull of just one more. That became just two more and so I hurriedly crossed the street to escape. And ran straight smack into the famous Al Sarooj Trading Company!!
Not content to simply line the walls with their marvellous wares, they’ve taken to the floor! Quite literally…
It was a riot! Swallowing back my whoops of delight I smartly decided to keep my mouth closed. I did not want another canny shopkeeper picking up my accent and giving me stick about the cricket. I smiled politely and exited, overwhelmed.
But I wasn’t done… a little voice deep inside was whispering “just one more!” And so I did. I was actually on the look out for one particular item. I’d fallen for a necklace I’d recently bought in Bali, with a distinctive feather charm…
…so I was sort of on the look out for something similar. This current shop had a nice, enticing feel for it, with customers coming and going and three attentive staff ready to help. After mooching around aimlessly I was approached by one who inquired as to how he could help me. I showed him my feather charm and with a wave of his arm he introduced me to Wasim. Upstairs he beckoned. I looked around. No stairs, to be seen, I was confused. Then the next thing I was whisked onto some sort of hydraulic contraption and up we rose through a small opening in the ceiling…
Up and up we went as slow as it could go until we alighted into Sharon heaven 😍 There was little need for introductions as Wasim already knew my name… as he could easily decipher it from the Arabic charm I wear as a necklace. He was from Kashmir, although he initially described himself as being from Pakistan (!). And so another delightful conversation began. He showed me around this wonderful space pointing out things I might like… oh the tassels!!!!
How could you be expected to choose?! “It’s a good business this one” came the familiar words. Wasim has been in Dubai for around 4 years, and he went on to say that he was planning to be working here for another 2 years yet.
He is saving up to marry his sweetheart, and proceeded to pull out his phone and show me image after image of his beautiful betrothed. And some of her amazing artwork. She’s an artist I exclaimed! she must be selling these! But no he shook his head. These are just doodles. For women are not allowed to work in his home land. The mothers, wives, sisters… it’s “cook and eat and cook and eat” he explained. Hmmmm I said. We discussed the relative costs of a wedding in our respective countries. 25,0000 dirhams ($10k) was the Kashmiri norm. And that doesn’t cover the presents. The dowry you mean? No the gifts they have to give the guests. “The guests?” I say, what? Wow. I’d better stop talking and start doing some spending with him!
It was nearing school pick up time. I was super happy, but hugely tired. I needed to draw a line under my exciting and seriously fulfilling day. I’d seen some amazing things, met some wonderfully friendly people, traded a few laughs, lamented about the cricket, heard some exciting and fascinating stories, been blinded by haberdashery brilliance and reinvigorated by humanity. All this for a spend of maybe $60 in return.
But back to Wasim… I mooch around, I show him my feather charm. He walks down an aisle, stops and smiles and reaches for a box I hadn’t yet noticed…
I think these are what you’re looking for…