After 16 years of steadily growing scope, Global Village in Dubai opens its doors once again for its latest winter season. Leah Oatway meets its customers and some of the traders behind its success.
So impressive were the skills of the young, satin-clad kung fu artists who now lie exhausted on a mat just outside China that, long after the drums and applause had ended, Bijeesh Babu continues to smile.
In the space of just a few hours, the 30-year-old Abu Dhabi-based engineer had been exposed to cultures from Western Europe to South East Asia and many others in between. Babu isn’t a private jet owner, nor does he have the ability to time travel – he is simply one of millions of people who has fallen for the considerable cultural charms of Dubai’s Global Village.
Every year since 1997, between the cooler months of October and March, traders from around the world have set up stalls at this tourism and cultural destination where, under a night’s sky, they sell their traditional wares to tourists and residents, such as Babu, at unique, country-themed pavilions.
Tonight, 16 years after its debut, the grounds are heaving with people who have made the journey out of the city centre to its purpose-built grounds off Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road (formerly Emirates Road) to enjoy the spectacle. Organisers claim that the Village welcomes five million visitors per year, and attracted more than 500,000 people this Eid Al Adha alone. Rickshaw drivers relieve the burden of walking from the vast car park area to the main entrance (there’s enough room for 17,000 cars). Inside, costumed performers dance and put on shows to entertain the crowds that inevitably gather in the central outdoor food court area while, just metres from where Babu sits with friends watching the kung fu exhibition, The Lords of Lightning (two performers dressed in bodysuits) pass four million volts of electricity between each other. There’s a lot going on.
“This is my second year to come to Global Village,” says Babu, who is from Kerala, India. “My friends and I are in a festive mood. We came here to enjoy and learn about different nationalities and cultures. We’ve been here since 6pm; it’s 9pm now, and I think we’ll be here for a couple more hours yet. This kung fu demonstration was particularly good.”
The number of grinning children to be spotted with weary parents is testament to the quality of this year’s funfair, too, which takes the form of a Coney Island-style “Fantasy Island”, complete with wooden boardwalk floor, typical funfair games (think hooking ducks and throwing hoops over bottles) and an impressive selection of rides for the young and brave at heart, including a log flume and several rollercoasters.
But the majority of visitors inevitably end up shopping. When the event debuted in the late 1990s at Dubai Creek, it had 18 pavilions; this year, there are 37 to wander around, the newest additions being from Europe (Germany, Italy, France and the UK), and the general consensus is that it keeps getting better.
“I have been coming here for 10 years,” says Mohandas Unnikrishnn, a 40-year-old businessman from Kerala who has worked in Dubai for 12 years. “While it’s mostly the same stuff, I would say perhaps this year is a little better. I like the entertainment on offer here and the shopping. Among my favourite pavilions is probably India, but I like the many different countries showcased: you can get orientated with other cultures and their traditional items.”
At 6pm, the pair had bought only oils from Thailand but, as the venue stays open until 1am on weekends and holidays, the night was still young. “We may buy something else, I’m not sure,” says Unnikrishnn, with a smile. “The prices here can be a little high, so visitors should be ready to barter with traders. I think if you can get an item at around 80 per cent of the asking price then you’re doing well.”
The bartering habits of seasoned Global Village patrons are something that Sebastian Rocco, a Spain-based fashion jewellery designer and first-time exhibitor, is still getting used to. Rocco’s eponymous jewellery line, which features dramatic bracelets and necklaces cast with gold or silver plating and the odd touch of turquoise, is hugely popular in Russia, the United States and the UK. It more than holds its own in a pavilion that boasts beautiful Spanish ceramics, olive oil and on-trend shopping bags. So far, he says, response from shoppers has been strong.
“I’ve had a very good reaction here,” he says. “The only problem is that people expect to pay cheap and I am not cheap. I think the culture in this region is also to barter a little, so you have to adapt. I’m learning.
“My pieces have a little bit of a history. Once I explain that, people usually understand why my items are worth more. I was born in Uruguay and have lived in Spain for the last 10 years. This fashion jewellery thing has been in my family for three generations.”
Rocco is hoping that his presence at this year’s Spain pavilion will help him to locate a GCC-based distributor for his pieces. “I feel Global Village is a good entrance for this market that is so different and strange for us,” he explained. “I’m loving it; it’s a very forward business place.”
While young men dance to live music at the Iran pavilion, over at the India pavilion, Gujarat-based textile trader Seema Ganesh Lal, 35, proudly unfolds an intricately decorated bedspread for a potential customer.
“In Gujarat, most of the pieces are characterised by lots of beads and sequins, whereas Rajasthan is more thread work and less sequins,” she explains. “One bedcover can take about one-and-a-half months to make. All of the pieces here are from Gujarat. We work with an NGO in my small village there: I buy the pieces from the ladies, which helps them and their families.”
Lal has been travelling to Dubai specifically for Global Village for the past four years following a recommendation from a neighbour. “They said it was good for business, and I agree,” she says.
Meanwhile, at the rear of the Afghanistan pavilion, Raees Khan reveals a book from USAid on Afghan rug-making, to a rapt audience.
“The madar root produces the blue in this rug,” he explains to a British couple, pointing to a three-metre-by-two-metre Shirin Tagab rug. “They put it in these big pots and dye it regularly for three months so that the wool takes the colour. These are the sheep, and the wool is made by hand. When the wool is ready, they start the carpet. Did I explain the looming process that is used? Wait, let me get the loom …”
He proceeds to explain how the quality of a rug can be determined by the noise that it makes when you scratch the back of it, or how the wool smells when it is burnt: “The other thing is the dyes. Those carpets that have natural dyes, the more you look at them, the more you will love them. Some customers say the carpets talk to them.”
The combination of Khan’s Afghan rug knowledge, passed down to him by his father, and his natural storytelling ability, never fails to draw visitors to his stall. You’ll find them enthralled, sat on several of the hundred rugs he and his father choose on visits back to their home country.
“Afghani guys say carpet-making is an art and selling is an art,” he says with a smile. “Buying is an art also. Global Village is going well. It’s slow, but I may sell three carpets today, tomorrow I sell two, so every day I sell a few. It’s heavy work and I could switch to selling dresses, like my brother, who makes a lot more on his stall. But I love this job. Most of my customers come just to learn. It’s a pleasure to introduce the carpets, to explain about them.”
Khan’s father has held a stall at Global Village for the past 10 years. Originally from Paktia Province, in the east of the country, as a young man, his father stumbled upon rug trading almost accidentally, when, during trips across the border with Pakistan to acquire food to sell in Kabul, some Pakistani military generals asked him to bring them some rugs. “He brought five and sold them, and slowly the business built from there. We had the best business in Peshawar; Afghanistan came later, and five years ago we went to Kabul again.”
It’s all but impossible not to buy into the incredible culture and history on offer at many of the pavilions, as first-time Global Village visitor Stephanie Gardner, a British events worker who has lived in Dubai for the past year, is fast discovering.
“It’s my first time here and I think it’s pretty cool,” she says. “I had an Entertainer voucher, so it only cost my friend and I Dhs15 to get in between us. It gets you out of the house and it’s nice to walk around outdoors.”
So far she’s resisted the urge to buy anything, but she’s unsure how long she can stave off the temptation.
“You could leave with a lot of stuff. I just had visitors who were keen to see markets. They would have loved this, but it wasn’t open. I’ll bring my mother when she comes though – she would love it here.”
Global village is open until March 1, 2014, from 4pm to midnight on weekdays and from 4pm to 1am on weekends. Admission is Dhs15 per person. For more information, visit www.globalvillage.ae or call 04 362 4114