A trip to Abu Dhabi's Afghan carpet market is like a walk back in time

The bustling souq weaves stories from the Capital's rich history


Anjana Sankar

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 6:35 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 7:58 PM

Massive development projects in Abu Dhabi city have not dimmed the charm of an all-time favourite destination in the capital. The Mina carpet market or the Afghan carpet market, as it is popularly known, remains a haunt of Abu Dhabi residents as well as tourists. It’s a walk back in time, then and now.

The bustling souq nestled near the Mina port exudes a rare and rustic charm in a city that is fast becoming a global tourist destination. The market is a maze of around 100 shops that sell some of the best and most affordable carpets. Their walls speak of the rich history of Abu Dhabi.

Well before the emirate transformed from a sleepy fishing hamlet to a modern metropolis in a span of four decades, the market catered to niche customers, including rich sheikhs and rulers. After the Mina port was built in 1972, trade started to flourish and merchants from Afghanistan brought intricate hand-woven carpets to Abu Dhabi. The Mina market, as it existed in those days, was just a patch of desert near the port.

Abdul Mannan, 65, one of the oldest carpet traders in Mina says, when he came to Abu Dhabi in the 80s, there were just a clutch of traders and a small tent. He was just 18 when he landed in Abu Dhabi with a handful of Afghan carpets.

In the beginning, there was just a tent

Ghousudhin, 62, slips out of his room on the first floor of his shop only after the sun goes down. He is one of the earliest Afghan traders who is still doing business in the market. He spends his evenings strolling through the market and joking with the young traders who have mostly taken over the business from their fathers and uncles. Only a few of his friends are still alive, he says.

“We are just a few left behind. Many have gone home and died,” says Ghousudhin, who recalls how the market transformed into what it is today.

“I came to Abu Dhabi in 1989. It was a different world then. There were no roads or air conditioners,” he reminisced, sitting in the cool comfort of his shop.

Ghousudhin says the carpet market came into being only because of the generosity of Sheikh Zayed, whose framed photo hangs in the seller's shop.

“One day, Sheikh Zayed came to the market, and he felt bad that we were selling carpets under the hot sun. He moved us to a small building where today’s fish market is,” he says.

The founding father ordered the construction of the current market and gifted every trader a shop. “He used to visit us every few months and buy a carpet from each shop. It was not that he wanted so many carpets, but he wanted to help us,” says Ghousudhin, who adds that he owes his life and shop to ‘Baba Zayed’.

For the love of Zayed

Sheikh Zayed’s legacy still lives on in the market. A viral video that circulated on social media a few years ago showed an unidentified Emirati man asking an Afghani shop owner to sell a portrait of Sheikh Zayed on a carpet. The man in the video, Moosa Khan, refuses, saying: “This is my baba Zayed.”

Khan tells Khaleej Times that, even if someone filled his shop with hard cash, he wouldn’t sell the picture. “My father got the carpet done in Turkey as a tribute to Sheikh Zayed. Even when he died two years ago, he told me never to sell that picture for money.”

He had his share of fame when later, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now UAE President, visited the man and pinned a ‘Year of Zayed’ badge on his shirt. Later, Sheikh Mohamed took to Twitter to express his admiration for the dedication of the trader and his abiding love for Sheikh Zayed.

Bargain hunter’s favourite

Over the years, the market has expanded to showcase a variety of carpets. Traders say the pandemic has taken its toll, with businesses hit in 2020.

“With the lockdown and Abu Dhabi being closed to tourists, there was hardly any business. Many of us had to go home. But now, we are bouncing back,” says Shahzaad Abdul Hameed, who took over Shop No 7 from his father 20 years ago.

From expensive hand-made Afghan and Kashmiri carpets to machine-made varieties from Turkey, Hameed says the market is catering to all tastes and pockets.

Mohammed Gulam, another trader, says tourists and residents alike flock to the market as they offer the best prices.

“Competition is tough. There are many new shops in Dubai and Sharjah. Shopping malls also have started selling carpets. But we have an edge because we offer the most affordable prices.”

According to him, an Afghan carpet that would cost Dh4,000 outside is available for around Dh2,000 in Mina carpet market.

“Where else will you get such competitive prices? Also, people love to come here and bargain. We are very accommodating.”

The market will retain its old-world charm

The Mina area is undergoing a makeover under a massive restoration project announced by the Abu Dhabi government. The project, launched in two phases, aims to transform the area into a new tourist, commercial and residential destination.

Spanning over three million square metres in Mina Zayed, it will also see the old fish and plant market adjacent to the Mina port transform into a modern marketplace.

But the carpet-sellers hope their market will always remain the same.

“Many things have changed over the last many years except this market. We hope, even in the next 30 years, we will still be here to tell the stories of Sheikh Zayed’s generosity and Abu Dhabi’s past.”

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