DUBAI // Painful memories of the huge blaze that destroyed the historic Naif Souk in Deira almost two years ago are still fresh in the minds of the traders who saw their businesses go up in smoke. But now, dozens of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi traders affected by the fire hope to put the bad memories behind them when the souk returns in May as the New Naif Market.
"We had to bear several losses," said Abdul Aziz, 52, an Indian garment trader whose two shops were razed in the inferno. "We were just holding on in the hope of a return of our souk." He ran his business at the old market for 23 years before it was gutted. The building was reduced to cinders in a blaze that ripped through the 5,500 square metre complex in the early hours of April 2 last year. It was caused by an electrical fault in an air conditioning unit in one of the stores and quickly engulfed almost 200 shops, destroying property worth about Dh1 billion (US$272 million).
V Rafeeq, 40, another veteran garment trader from the old souk, said exposed electrical wiring and a lack of safety equipment there had worried the traders prior to the fire, but no one had imagined such a catastrophic outcome. He said he cut short his holiday in India as soon as he heard news of the blaze. "I got here by night and saw that the souk was virtually erased," he said. "For days we were just waiting outside, hoping the police would let us go in and have a look to see if any of our goods had survived.
"When we finally got in, there was nothing but ash." The fire was so fierce it left shopkeepers and residents nearby fearing for their safety. "The flames were high. Residents in the area feared it would spread to their homes and they had to be evacuated," said M Ismail, who works at a shop near the site of the old market. "It was really scary. We did not dare to go close to it. The authorities arrived soon and took control of the area."
Like most of the souk traders, Mr Aziz was left facing "a serious question of survival and livelihood". Several tradesmen and staff returned to their homelands in despair and many moved to different areas. However, help from local residents and the Dubai Municipality, which days after the fire pledged that a new souk would be built, ensured that those who stayed could at least get by until it was completed.
Apart from aid from welfare groups, the municipality paid each trader between Dh30,000 to Dh45,000, depending on the individual losses incurred. It also set up a temporary market for them near the site of the old souk at Nakheel Street, where Mr Aziz now trades. He said the business community from the old market had united to overcome the disastrous blaze as best they could. "All of us stood together faced the task," he said.
While the temporary souk was appreciated, its location, set behind the main shopping area on Nakheel street, has meant a drop off of more than 50 per cent for most businesses. "The temporary market is away from the [main] market area," Mr Aziz said. "No one comes here. This is why we look forward to moving. "The new souk is at the best business district in Naif and we hope we will benefit." Earlier this week, officials from the municipality met traders from the old souk and told them that they would be able to move into the new shops by May.
"We were shown models of the new souk and the progress of its construction. This was an exciting moment for all of us and we have lot of expectations of it," Mr Aziz said. The new venue, to be built on the site of the old souk, will feature 218 units of various sizes spread over two floors. It will be centrally air-conditioned and will have 111 shops on the ground floor and 107 on the first floor.
Khalifa Hareb, the director of assets management for the municipality, said the shops would be distributed fairly. Traders will be allocated units that are the same size as those they had run at the old souk. Up-market coffee shops, good parking facilities and modern toilets have also been promised. "Of course, it will lose its traditional look," Mr Rafeeq said. "That was one of the main attractions of the souk."
Haridas Kakanacheri, 50, who lost four shops in the fire, said the return of the souk would also mean better business for the neighbouring shops as more people would return to the area. "Our chances of getting more customers would increase," he said. "It's been a bad year so far with the recession and there are very few buyers anyway." He said he was looking forward to moving into the new souk. "It would be centrally air-conditioned and this is probably something that is most exciting for us," he said.
"We have worked all our lives in the heat, in the open. We would enjoy working in air conditioning." @Email:email@example.com
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