Hail to the Arabian fish gods

A perfectly toasted pinenut, the sunset in Southern Utah, Skyping with my Dad, and the Deira fish market…these are a few of my favorite things.

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I love the Deira fish market.  Everything about it.  The long taxi ride to get there in midday traffic.  The smell of the sea after it has been sitting out in the hot Arabian sun.  The passionate vendors that adamantly fight for each sale.  The rows of fresh produce both exotic and mundane.  The smiling faces.  The boisterous voices.

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Help! My shrimp has turned into a lobster.
Help! My shrimp has turned into a lobster.

There is an art to shopping at the fish market.  The finesse with which you conduct yourself dictates an experience that goes far beyond stopping at your neighborhood grocer.  The process starts at the moment you step into your taxi…

“Hello!  How are you?”  I chirp in my normal amiable tone.  “Deira fish market please.  And if possible could you wait at the market for the return ride?”

“Fish market at Deira…are you buying fish?” the driver responds as he glances into the rear-view mirror.

“Yes, of course!” I announce as I go on babbling about how much I love the fish market.  “It’s my favorite place in Dubai.  Well, there and the aquarium.  Have you seen the fish tanks in the…”

“No fish in my taxi,” he interrupts in a thick Indian accent.

“Oh…really?  You have a no fish rule?” I say feeling slightly defeated.

“Fish smell.  Other people no like fish smell.  They say ‘What that smell?  What is bad smell in taxi?’ No fish in taxi,” he says obviously determined to put a snag in my shopping day.

As I get out and wait for another taxi to take me to my little slice of culinary heaven I consider the decision I just made.  Getting dropped off at the fish market without a guaranteed return ride is a dangerous predicament for a few important reasons.  First, the taxi stand is not close to the market, which means a short walk.  Second the taxi stand does not always have a taxi at it, which means there could be considerable waiting involved.  Third, there is no shade at the taxi stand.  Not a building, a tree, an overhang.  Nothing.  You wait at the side of a road hoping that a taxi might stumble upon your remote location.

And finally the reason that makes all the above reasons legitimate…at noon on your average June day, the temperature is about 47˚ C.  Which is, oh, about 117˚ F.  One hundred and seventeen freakin’ degrees.

I may have lived in a third floor walk-up in South Philly with no air conditioning and it’s true that I have camped in the desert in Southern Utah in August, but, call me a wuss, none of that comes close to standing on the pavement in Dubai in 117˚ heat.

IMG_1049My next taxi driver has no bone to pick with fish (pun intended) and whisks me away without a second glance.

I can already smell the mixture of seafood and sun as the taxi door slams behind me.  I take a deep inhale and try to remember when fresh seafood and hot hot humidity ever went so well together.  Before my foot has a chance to land on the curb a swarm of Pakistani men pushing wheelbarrows is upon me.  I wave and give a confident nod to one and the rest fall back to prey on the next arrival.

My feet hit the pavement, walking between the stands filled with the vibrant greens, oranges and reds of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Watermelons, oranges, radishes, arugula, eggplant, mangos stacked so tall around me appear as if they could topple at any moment.  My man with the wheelbarrow keeps pace just behind me.  He is dressed just as they all are in a dark green jumpsuit with snaps up the front, dark leather sandals and a white towel folded on top of his head to provide a small relief from the unrelenting sun.  His skin is as dark as a piece of stained walnut and looks as if it has spent most of its 50 years on this planet in the company of the midday sun.  He smiles at me with an crooked grin as we turn to head past the produce and into the fish stalls.

IMG_1037It’s getting close to 1 PM, which means that the hundreds of vendors are packing up their wares for the afternoon rest (local businesses close from about 1 PM to 4 PM each day).  I look around the sea of light blue uniforms on the fish merchants and the faces, tanned and dirty from the morning’s work until my eyes meet a familiar pair.  He smiles broadly and motions for me to come over to the white plastic fish tables I front of him.  The chaos of packing up, negotiating, outselling, laughing and yelling beats around us like the rhythm of a drum.

“My customer.  Yes.  I pack up.  Market close.  You want?” He begins in broken English as he reaches into the ice in the box at his feet and pulls out a glistening hammour.

In 10 words he accomplishes so much.  First he establishes that I am indeed his regular customer.  This he does partially for the vendors around him to claim his possession over my sale, but mostly he does it for my benefit.  It’s a courtesy really.  It’s as if he is saying in the kindest way possible “Listen, white lady.  I know that we all look alike to you especially since we are all dressed in these grungy blue outfits and I just want to assure you that it’s okay that you don’t know me from the next guy as long as I get your sale.”  In the next five words he let’s me know that the market is closing and that is why the fish are not on display but in the midst of being packed up.  And in the final two words he confirms that he knows which fish I prefer and is ready with a gem of a selection.

I love the efficiency of a country that knows how to run on multiple dialects.

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I make my selections.  Pretending I know something about the fish types, the quality of the oversized prawns (correct me if I am wrong, but the word shrimp means small, right?) and the art of negotiation.  My English teacher in high school taught me a lot, most of which I promptly forgot, but one thing she taught me sticks with me at moments like this.  “Fake it ‘til you make it.”  I’m faking it Mrs. Esther.   Definitely faking it.

The man pushing the wheelbarrow grabs the bags containing my purchases from the merchant and promptly commences a fight with two other men in green jumpsuits.  I sigh and roll my eyes as a smile creeps across my sweat-drenched face.  These guys are serious about their commission.  You see, the man pushing the wheelbarrow is my assistant for the time that I am at the market.  He pushes the cart.  He collects my bags as I go stall to stall. He gets my fish cleaned.  He loads my purchases into the taxi.  And when necessary, he looks after me, his customer, with vehement protection.  He will not have someone else handle my fish from the vendor to the cleaner.  He will not take the chance that some guy gets a piece of his commission.  He is determined and I appreciate him for that.

“Clean and cut?” he asks as he swats at the hands around him vying for a piece of the action.

“No cut,” I say.  “Only clean.  No filet.”

“Okay, Okay, Okay,” he confirms. “Clean?” he asks holding up the bag of prawns.

“Yes.  Clean. Shukran (thank you),” I respond following his direction by using as few words as possible to aid our communication.  “I go to produce,” I say as I point to the fruit and vegetable vendors.

He nods understanding that I am telling him where to find me when he comes back from having the fish cleaned.  He throws the bags back into his wheelbarrow and shuffles off to the fish cleaning station – an open air facility with 50 men clamoring to scale, clean, gut and filet anything that attempts to come close to their sharpened knives.  I head the other direction and turn towards the vegetable stands.

My regular vendors smile and wave vigorously for me to pay attention to the fresh vegetables they shake in my direction.

“Hello.  Hello.  Excuse me.  Hello.  Bitter melon!  Cauliflower!  Lemons!  Fresh.  Very fresh.”  The two young men yell in my direction.

“Hello!  How are you?” I smile and start pointing to items and naming desired quantities.

By the time I have picked out my selection of vegetables, my pal with the wheelbarrow is back.  I flash a big smile (anyone see a pattern here?) and open the bags to ensure that the prawns were cleaned and the fish was gutted, but not filleted.  I pay for my vegetables as they are loaded into the wheelbarrow next to me.  We head across the aisle together to the fruit stands.  After a warm greeting I go about picking golden pineapples, bananas and papayas, dark green avocados and bright maroon pomegranates.  The seller hands me a lychee fruit to taste and I crack the skin to get to the sweet flesh inside.  The juice drips down my chin and mixes with the sweat pooling on my chest.  The sun glistens through an opening in the overhang as I reach into my purse once more to complete the purchase.

We walk towards the parking lot to meet up with my taxi driver and load the purchases into the boot.  The sun and sweat have adhered my clothes to my body.  I pay my loyal assistant for his help and climb into the back seat waving and smiling a final good-bye as he shuffles away with his wheelbarrow leading the way.

My very first fish filet.
My very first fish filet.

I relax into the air-conditioned cab and discuss Pakistani-US relations with the driver in as many words as we can find in common as we fight the infamous Dubai traffic on our way back to Business Bay.  Back in the apartment I put everything away and pull out a cutting board and my favorite filet knife.  As much as I love the fish market, the most beloved part of the crazy ordeal comes at this moment of solace in the kitchen.  The moment when it is just me and my fish.  Face to face.  I thank him for being so beautiful and for nourishing me so well.  And then, I firmly place the knife against his skin and make my first cut.

1 Comment

  1. December 31, 2009 at 2:14 am

    […] two weeks), pch (thank you bff in san diego and sister in san fran). turkey at 28 (thanks ahmet). dubai/oman/india at 29 (‘nuf […]


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