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26th June

Cold comfort

When I go through my journal from February 1993 and read the enthusiastic description of my first visit to the Grand Souk in Dubai, I’m overtaken by an unexpectedly fierce desire to be out in the world.

I write how, on a balmy night, I wander through the bustling streets of the old center with its neon signs in Arabic and its shops selling electronics, clothes, and jewellery until I arrive, by chance, at the Grand Souk, the huge bazaar with its indoor markets.

At the spice market I’m fascinated by the striking colors of the numerous spices on display:  deep red, bright yellow, warm orange, and a mysterious blue I’ve never seen before. The fragrances of cardamom, curry, nutmeg, turmeric, chili, and roasted teas from Iran and Pakistan blend into a strong, pungent perfume.

Going from stall to stall I hear the high-pitched voices of Bollywood stars and the longing tones of Arab music. The merchants invite me to have a closer look at their wares, one offers me a glass of sweet tea, another gives me dates.

I’m awed by the mixture of people, many in traditional attire. Men from Pakistan wear long, wide shirts and loose trousers, Omanis have their cashmere kerchief tied as a turban, a sarong-like garment is worn by men from Somalia, Afghan men wear knee-length dress, baggy trousers and beige, woollen caps, and Emiratis don immaculately white, ankle- length dishdashas and head scarves with red checks.

There are few women in the bazaar. But at the gold market I spot several African women dressed in colorful gowns of wax print fabric looking at a display of elaborate necklaces. At the perfume market a heavily veiled lady holds out her hand so the Indian salesperson can spray some perfume on the small patch of skin between her black glove and the sleeve of her abaya.

I hear the guttural and consonant-heavy sound of Arabic, the soft harmony of Persian, the sweet sounds of Urdu. I don't know what is being said, but that only reinforces the thrill of being immersed in such a starkly different and electrifying world from my own.

When I visit the Grand Souk several years later, I’m disappointed to see that the old bazaar has been restored to showcase the original architecture. The effort to make the new look old feels artificial.

I’m not happy either to see that postcards are sold in the spice market and that mugs with the Burj al Khalif, the highest skyscraper in the world stand among the baskets of saffron and curcumin.

I realise that it wasn’t only the soothing feeling of recognition I missed during subsequent visits to the souk but just as much, or perhaps even more, the discovery of rich and novel sensory stimulations.

I long to physically explore the unknown but I will have to wait at least until my second jab in a couple of weeks.

Reading about that adventure in my journal now is cold comfort.

Cold comfort
00:00 / 04:06
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