The Gold Bazaar

Incorrectly advised that all the shops would be open even though it was the morning of the Muslim sabbath, Svetlana and I took the 20-minute cab ride from our hotel to the Dubai gold bazaar.  Owing to the holiday, traffic was light and we actually wished the ride had taken a little longer so we would have had more time to admire the wonderful Arab buildings, each,  more modern and distinctive than its neighbor.  The city was like a giant  architectural competition.The income from the millions of tourists now visiting Dubai each year was indeed being put to spectacular use.

As we learned was usual in the Emirates, the driver barely spoke. And, when he did his English wasn’t so good and on the first try, we mostly didn’t understand him.  Nevertheless, he was pleasant enough and probably because a lot of other tourists, we were told, less generous tippers than Americans, he seemed excessively appreciative of his gratuity.

When we arrived at the bazaar we were dismayed to learn that because of the sabbath most of the hundreds of shops were shuttered.  However, even with the majority closed, dozens were still open and my wife enthusiastically entered the first one we came to.  She was looking to buy a pendant which would remind us of our trip to the Emirates.  The five Pakistani or Indian clerks (all male, of course) were anxious to help her.  The store was not large, but in beautifully laid out display cases from floor to ceiling were thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and souvenirs.    If one has not previously seen that much gold in one place at one time, the richness and splendor of it is truly breathtaking.

Remembering how she had enjoyed, and I had barely endured, the haggling involved in buying even inexpensive items at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul a few years before, I elected not to suffer through such an ordeal again.  Instead, I told her I would wait for her on one of the several benches outside on the wide, covered sidewalk between the shops.

We had timed our trip to the Emirates perfectly, missing the winter cold by a few days and arriving before onset of the unbearable summer heat.Thus, I was quite comfortable as I sat in the warm air, enjoying strange fragrances emanating from the shops and people and observing the happenings.

One of the first things I noticed was that there were several other men, no doubt tourists, sitting on other benches.   The men sat alone or in pairs, but periodically a woman or two would show up to drop off purchases or to exchange a few words with them; probably about possible deals, I guessed. Most likely the men and I were kindred spirits and they didn’t like haggling over jewelry purchases, either. None of us paid any attention to the others.

Soon, however, I noticed a different aspect of the environment. As new tourists walked down the area between the shops and benches they were approached, as I had been, by different men offering Rolex watches, Gucci handbags and other, no doubt, knock-off items. The street vendors’ approach to the newcomers was interesting.  Looking down the sidewalk, they would identify and focus on a likely mark walking their way.  Then, they would move out of the anticipated path of the candidate and a little off to the side.  As the potential pigeon drew abreast, they would sidle up to him or her very smoothly, matching stride, and begin their short pitch in a quiet, friendly way.

I sat there for the better part of an hour and never saw a positive response. The tourists either completely ignored the sellers or, sometimes emphatically said, no.  The salesmen seemed nonplussed by this rejection and simply began again looking down the sidewalk for their next target.

I then began to wonder about the vendors.  Did they ever make a sale?  Obviously, they must make at least a few or they would not have continued their attempts.  But, how many?  And, how much profit was in each sale?  No way for me to know.   What about their personal lives?  Wives and girlfriends here?  Unlikely, but maybe.   Families in India or Pakistan?  Probably, but without actually talking to one of them I couldn’t know.  However, one thing was certain:    whatever existed for them at home had to have been pretty bad for them to have traded it for this marginal street existence in Dubai.

About the time I decided to see if one of them would answer my questions about these things, Svetlana excitedly returned to show me her purchase.  She had found exactly what she was looking for: a gold pendant in the shape of the Jumeirah Palm.  As I dutifully admired it, I wished that her negotiation for the purchase had taken just a little longer, giving me enough time to find out more about the street peddlers.

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