Year of the 50th

From porter to businessman: Iranian expat recounts 50-year journey in Dubai's spice market

SM Ayaz Zakir/Dubai
Filed on July 17, 2021

Abdullah Asad in his spice shop in Deira Souk. KT Photos/Shihab

The Spice Souk brims with a variety of top quality spices, herbs and tea, and gives visitors a glimpse of Arabian traditions.

The aromas and variety of spices on display offer visitors a unique experience.

Abdullah Asad with his son's Mukhtar and Sattar in their spice shop in Dubai.

Abdullah Asad came to Dubai in 1967, when there were hardly six shops that sold spices and herbs in the souk.

Abdullah Asad is a prominent businessman in the popular spice market at the Deira Souk. He is fondly known as Abdu or Gyahi mard (which in Farsi translates to herbal man).

He came to Dubai in 1967 and forayed into the spice business, which is rooted in traditions and culture. Dubai’s spice trade can be traced back to the mid-18th century.

Traders from a few countries brought their spices and sold them in Deira – Dubai’s oldest suburb and the riverside hub where the first trading settlement began.

“When I came to Dubai, I could hardly spot six shops that sold spices, but now it’s very difficult to count them,” he reminisced.

“There were only a few traders back then and the list has been increasing ever since. As I remember, only six shops sold herbs and spices, and now there are over 230 of them in the spice souk. I have no idea about the (exact) number of spice traders in Dubai now,” he said.

In those days, Abdullah, who was 16 then, did not imagine he would be making it big in the spice trade. “I carried spices on my back,” he laughed.

Remembering his early days as a porter, Abdullah recalled: “There was not much to do with the spices only being imported. The main buyers were the locals. I earned Dh2 per day.”

Today, Dubai’s Spice Souk brims with a variety of top quality spices, herbs and tea, giving visitors a glimpse of Arabian traditions.

The developing spice business attracted several buyers and sellers, which led to the expansion of the souk (market) in those days. Spice shops began to flourish after the emergence of the UAE as an independent nation.

“Many spice traders from Iran, India and Afghanistan then made Dubai their home due to low customs duty,” he explained.

Abdullah still lives in nostalgia. He is one of the few traders who cycles to his establishment and greets everyone with a wide smile.

“I have seen many traders who sold spices on the roadside bringing it (the goods) on bicycles,” Abdullah recollected.

“Dubai’s spice trade shot up after independence. All thanks to the government,” he said.

Many countries including Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and African nations developed their spice trade here. Once catering to residents in the country, the souk has now become a hub for global spice trade, catering to markets all around the world.

Abdullah said that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, made Dubai a major tourist hub, which led to a massive growth in the spice business. “Tourists in Dubai buy spices from us and sell it in their countries. Considering the quality of spice the souk offers, they have now established businesses in their home country,” he said.

Abdullah is positive about the business picking up once flights to Dubai regain normalcy. The pandemic has had an adverse impact on the spice trade.

“Dubai is a blessed city. Business may be a bit low now due to the Covid situation. But it will surely pick up once we win the war against coronavirus,” he added.

With its typical ancient Arabian architecture, narrow alleys and box-size shops overflowing with sacks, jars and bags of colourful, aromatic spices, the Spice Souk has become one of the must-visit places in Dubai. The smells, sights and sounds are fascinating, offering a unique experience in this ultra-modern metropolis.

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