Growing up in the Middle East in the pre-hypermarket/grocery store era, I faintly remember my childhood interactions with various shopkeepers. I remember their accents, expressions, and meticulously styled shop elevations and interiors.
Earlier this year, I set out to find similar experiences in some of the older neighbourhoods of Dubai, Al-Ain, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Sharjah. I was lucky enough to gather some small anecdotes through brief interactions.
I met Mohammed Ismail, who finds that he can’t butcher meat while his customers are there, gaping at his hands, chattering away. His solution to the dilemma is free tea, served on a specially carved-out pedestal – for everyone who stays outside.
Then, walking down King Faisal Street in Sharjah, I learned that this is a place where one might stumble upon two brothers who ran away from home when they were ten – only to set up one of the city’s finest Afghan bakeries. Praise them a little and you’ll hear all about that thrilling escape.
Unlike the owners of branded stores, small-scale shopkeepers have no guidelines to follow. Their shops are essentially an extension of themselves, their family traditions and socially accepted norms. One might even say they are slightly more refined or organised versions of their homes.
In that sense, the shop facades are literally windows into small eco-systems.