The Joys and Chores of Buying ‘Dubai Kitsch’
“No Photos!” she says. Why? The place is dark and dusty, unkempt as a mythical toymaker’s workshop. The advertising for this place is forlorn, and with a name like Fakih Collections (which does not phonetically sit very well in English), I wonder how anybody has taken the effort to find out about this place at all.
I have to speak to the manager. “Can you come back later?” he asks. No. I’m flying out on Wednesday morning. I’m just here for some Dubai kitsch for the folks back home. “I’ll blog about you,” I tell him. “I say only nice things…” No, he won’t budge an inch. It’s a pity, because above my head is a rainbow of hanging glass tea-light holders, just begging to be snapped up for posterity.
The aisles are dark, and warm, and I feel like I’m travelling down the intestine of a giant whale that has swallowed a ghost ship full of travellers souvenirs. They sit on shelves in a ramshackle way, but in families, as if the movement of the waves has nudged them out of line, but not entirely out of place. Pretty enamel boxes from Vietnam, pipes and canes from Oman, ceramics from Turkey, silver jewelery from Afghanistan, wooden “antiques” from Indonesia, glass from Egypt and Syria, the list goes on. It seems the whole of Asia is represented.
It’s laid out like a souk, with doors leading into other troves. One goes to the textile section, where I can buy anything from an abaya to a tablecloth, most of the stock made in India and colourful as Willy Wonka’s dreams. Everything is priced in this room, but of course, it’s always negotiable. Further off here, a secret stairwell leads to pashmina attic – over 432 different shades, I am told. But it’s hot up there – the air conditioning does not penetrate the altitude, and I leave after 25 seconds, bathed in sweat.
Another door leads to the framing gallery. Four men work over a table beneath a majestic yet entirely unnecessary wooden and stained glass staircase which leads only to a Mezzanine gallery I can see perfectly well from the floor. They are boxing in Omani daggers and trinkets, mini Persian carpets and the seven sands of the emirates. Setting them elegantly in deep black boxes with shiny wooden frames, turning them from trashy keepsakes into art.
Further into the belly of the whale I go, and I find the weapons. Daggers, swords, even rifles hang from the upper walls. On the floor is a baffling array of life-size animals and deities, imposing wooden doors, massive spinning globes, and other things I am still trying to figure out. Further still, and I see the tables, chairs, chests, even a palanquin.
A man has followed me through, I’m not sure why – he fends off any price query with “we give you good price”, and does not attempt the hard sell. So I let him carry my bundle, just to give him something to do. Finally I am done, and he shows me back to the foyer, where the AC is blowing at 40 knots and a few other tourists sit on overly ornate chairs, sipping chai and sorting out finances.
“I live here” I say, meaning “don’t bother with the rubbish prices”. Despite the enormous banner to my right which proudly states: “We have taken Ministry advise (sic) and will be moving to fixed price shortly!” and my obvious reluctance to spend a long time going from ridiculous price to fair, he still tries it on. I give him my best withering look, and he laughs, and finally starts giving me fair prices. And they really are so reasonable that I don’t bother hammering them down. I ask him when he expects to be moving to fixed price. Again, he laughs. “No madam, will not happen. The customer no like it.
So…. What “Dubai Kitsch” should you buy
· Textiles: These range from Egyptian cotton tablecloths to Indian saris, murals and bedspreads, then carpets, prayer rugs, and camel bags from the middle east, and of course pashminas, ranging from awful 10AED ones up to awfully priced 400AED ones (I got some lovely ones at 30 AED each). Cushion covers are colourful and great value, with patchwork silk ones starting at about 10-12 AED. Some textiles are handmade, others machine-made, so if it matters to you, make sure you research the differences before you go.
· Metalwork: Look for Omani daggers and chunky Afghan jewelery or cutlery with semi-precious stones and hand blown glass beads. Maybe, a genie lamp, coffee pot or an incense burner – they will look authentic, but will probably have been made in China. You may find some bronze antiques, although do take the word “antique” to mean anything that simply looks like it could be 100 years old – genuine age is irrelevant. Silver jewelery boxes are a bargain. Gold of course is a given, but that’s not our task for today (not kitsch enough).
· Wood: Antique teak doors are very well priced here – the problem is getting them back home, but most places can assist with shipping. There is plenty of smaller stuff though, including picture frames, chests, smaller boxes, chess boards and occasional tables. Look out for inlaid enamel or shell-work.
· Glass and Ceramics: You have to take home a pretty candle holder or lantern, and possibly a shisha pipe. Some of the ceramics are beautiful – mostly from Turkey, and you may also find some mosaics. Perfume bottles are beautiful, and you can always get them refilled.
…And where do you buy it?
I’ve found the Antiques Museum, as described above (with a map link here) has the best collection, and the best prices. As it is so hard to find, most people who visit are residents, or travellers with resident friends, and so the starting prices seem to be lower. It’s also open all day, not closing from lunch until 4 or 5pm like the souks do. Visit their site at (www.fakihcollections.com) Other wonderful places to visit include:
The Old Souk – (map)
It’s slightly more expensive, unless you are a pro at bargaining. The stock is fairly good, and in addition to the standard textiles, you will find heaps of cheap cotton clothing. No carpets here though. The benefit of heading to the souk is in the experience (as you can also sail across to the gold and spice souk), and the lunch you will enjoy at Bayt al Wakeel
The Blue Souk – (map)
Cross the border into Sharjah, and on the other side of the bay and near the fish market, you will find the air-conditioned souk with it’s ornate blue arched roof. All the same stuff is available here, possibly marginally cheaper than Dubai, but again, you will have to do some serious haggling. Super carpet selection, some lovely semi-precious stones upstairs, and a great place to visit in summer because of that blissful AC.
New Souks, e.g. Madinat Jumeirah – (map)
These are wonderful to walk around in, but anything you buy here will be at least triple the price of the true markets. The only exceptions are some dinky souvenirs, chunky jewelery, and carpets. The carpet stores at Madinat Jumeirah quite possibly have the best selection of premium carpets of all malls in Dubai, and the shopkeepers are more than happy to have a long discussion over price.
Stores – It may shock you to hear, but one of the best places to buy carpets is Carrefour at MOE. Sure, it’s no grand experience, but the prices are set low, and if you’re not interested in haggling, this is the place to go. Not as premium as the Blue Souk or Madinat Jumeirah ranges, but still very good. They also have all the trashy keepsakes, a good selection of shisha pipes and their accessories, and some lovely kitchen items. (eg tagines, kadais, coffee pots). I have found that the Karama Center (between the fish market and Karama Park) is also provides plenty of kitsch bounty in a variety of stores that can be found scattered between the stores selling “fakes” and “genuine copies”.
Your own home – If you are lucky enough, you will have a “carpet man”. Mine is Mr Ahmed, and he comes by once a month or so with a hotch-potch of treasures from his native Yemen and further afield (not just carpets). “Carpet Men” tend just to visit villas, but if you live in an apartment just reach out to a villa-dwelling friend who probably has a business card with the number of a lovely local textile merchant. I’ll bet he jumps at the chance of a sale. I know mine is happy to come back at specific times if I have guests coming.