A bride's shoes raise her up on her big day - literally.
Best foot forward
If Saif Ahmed does his job well, nobody will know.
The Syrian cobbler gives brides the gift of height. Ahmed works from a cubbyhole workshop in Darat Al Miah, crafting shoes of all sorts. His speciality is the platform wedding shoe: white wedges that add up to 35 centimetres to a bride’s height.
The pinnacle of an Emirati wedding comes after a sumptuous feast and hours of music, when the bride appears on a platform and teeters ever so slowly down a catwalk to a stage where she awaits her groom’s entrance.
The groom may have only met his bride a handful of times before the wedding. When he sees his bride, she may be transformed beyond recognition. Her make-up is very thick and very white, her hair is coloured and amplified with extensions. And she is taller, much taller, than when they last met.
The secret to her height is known only to her and Saif Ahmed.
The demand for taller and taller shoes grew inch by inch over the years, reaching its current height about five years ago. Ahmed’s best customers are brides of Baniyas, a community south of Abu Dhabi island. Orders come from Dubai, Sharjah, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. “Gulf women see each others’ shoes and ask where they got them,” says Ahmed. “A month ago I made a short pair, 29cm. Next week I’m starting a 35cm pair.”
Fitting into a wedding gown is not just about circumference and curves. It is also about height. Weeks before the wedding, brides or their mothers, sisters and aunts, drive to The Golden Shoe Shop behind the Etisalat building on Airport Road. Ahmed believes he is the only cobbler in the capital who makes such towering shoes.
“A bride is expected to be tall,” says his uncle and partner Mohammed. “They’ll say, ‘Oooh see, she’s so tall’, but just look underneath.”
“These are actually for Lady Gaga, huh?” says an Arab customer, eyeing 27cm shoes on display.
Women find The Golden Shoe by referral, arriving with inspirational photos of shoes stored on their phones. Ahmed is constantly on the phone with overseas customers, discussing the merits and drawbacks of extra inches.
He knows each bride by the number of centimetres she orders.
For Haleema Al Menhali, 40, soaring shoes are a reminder of her daughter’s wedding.
“When my daughter had her wedding she wore like this,” she said, eyeing a pair of power pumps in Ahmed’s shop. “It wasn’t too easy but we told her to walk slowly, slowly,” says Al Menhali. “She was so tall.”
Ahmed’s uncle and father began work in Abu Dhabi 27 years ago at White Shoes in the Tourist Club Area. Ahmed’s father died soon after in a car crash, in Saudi Arabia on the drive home to Syria from Abu Dhabi. Ahmed was two years old.
Ahmed later took up the family business. Born and raised in Aleppo, his mother tongue is Turkish.
“When I came into the world my father already had this profession and now I am the same,” says Ahmed. “I came to the Emirates about 12 years ago. I am now 29.
“I started this work when I was young, 11 years old. There was a factory for our family, with 30 or 40 people. They’re all from our family. My family in Syria is big, not small.
“I went to school when I was five but I didn’t like it. I wanted to work.”
The workshop is stacked with moulds of wooden feet and swaths of cloth – silver leopard prints, sparkling blue sequins, pink reptilian prints, florals, camel-toned suede, black velvet, Syrian leather. “All colours I have, all materials,” says Ahmed. “This chiffon, this lace. Shining colours. Honey colour. Like this.”
The Gold Shoes label is glued to every insole. Repairs are another speciality. Ahmed can correct instep problems or add a platform for people with legs of different height.
A normal shoe is built in a day or two. Wedding shoes take twice the time as layers must be added one centimetre at a time. Price rises with the shoe, at rate of Dh50 a centimetre in addition to the base cost. A 23cm pair costs more than Dh1,000. Demand is growing. In the wedding season, he makes up to 15 pairs a month.
Not everyone is enamoured with the tall pumps. “We would never wear like this,” says Khadija Al Hashemi, 18, a final-year school pupil who owns more than 20 pairs of shoes. “No way. Our aunt got married and they were like 15 centimetres but this? No way. It’s for short women, maybe.”
“This is too much, yanni,” says her sister Salama, 19, a foundation student at Abu Dhabi Women’s college. “Over the top.”
Anna Zacharias is a senior features writer for The National.