An alternative to Dubai's glossy shopping malls, the flea market is five years old this year, and it's one of the most fun, interesting and authentic events to come out of Dubai in recent years.
On the bargain hunt at the Dubai Flea Market
It's 3pm on Friday afternoon and there's something unusual happening at the Dubai World Trade Centre. This is a venue, which, by its very name, sums up images of extreme capitalism, suggesting trade, sophistication and status.
On this day, yes, there is trade. But it's the location of an event that is less about sophistication and more about feel-good community spirit than anything else.
Dubai Flea Market, usually held at Safa Park on the first Friday of every month, is five years old this year. It's moved indoors for the summer months, and this is the first time it's been located in the exhibition hall of Dubai World Trade Centre.
While it would be easy to dismiss such a gathering, where people hawk used junk for small amounts of money, you'd be missing out. In fact, it's one of the most fun, interesting and authentic events to come out of Dubai in recent years.
On an average day, the market, which sells mainly second-hand goods of every type, from books and clothes to artwork and ornaments, is frequented by an average of 8,000 to 14,000 people.
It costs Dh300 for a stall at the Dubai World Trade Centre (and Dh250 when it's held in Safa Park) and there are no set prices for goods being sold. Today, it has approximately 150 stalls where people of various nationalities and from every walk of life sell their wares. Others come in droves to buy them and there are queues out the door before it opens at 2pm.
From the start, there are crowds of people swarming around like bees, burrowing for a bargain. Children play in the aisles and there's a smell of freshly ground coffee as a man passes by the stalls, pushing a food cart selling snacks. The noise of people and laughter reverberates around the room and the atmosphere is convivial.
A tall Pakistani man with second-hand shirts thrown casually over his arm stands behind one stall. He throws his voice and waves the other arm expansively. "Dh10, Dh10, only Dh10," he shouts.
There are clothes and shoes and household paraphernalia strewn haphazardly across most of the tables - no order to any of it. A pair of crutches lies on display at one stand - nobody can remember where they came from - and a maritime life jacket at another. It's a bargain at Dh5.
A little girl with dark skin and pigtails skips by. She clutches a Hello Kitty school bag - clearly a new purchase - to her chest. Meanwhile, a man in a white Kandahar shirt trudges through the milling crowds with a photocopier held proudly under his arm. A small blonde western woman scurries by with a painting almost the same size as her. She grins smugly, content with her bargain. But then most people at the flea market seem happy. Even the security guard at the door is smiling at a small child in a buggy. The child smiles and waves back.
Dubai Flea Market is all about securing a bargain, and those who come here regularly are aware that if they get here early they're more likely to find one. "I've been coming here every month for the last three years," explains Maria O'Connor, from New Zealand. "It's a great place to find bits and pieces for the house and a lot of fun besides. But you've got to get here early."
Hermoine Macura from Australia agrees. "The best items go in the first two hours," she explains. "And people seem to buy anything. One of my friends even gave us second-hand underwear to sell." She pauses. "People are buying it."
She's sharing the stall with her friends - Caroline Leon, also from Australia, and Scott Gladden from the UK. The couple are here today to raise money for the Gulf4Good charity challenge that will see them climb Machu Picchu in Peru.
"We need to raise Dhs15,000 in total," explains Leon. "We've nearly reached the target and there's just a few weeks left. This is our last attempt to raise the money," she grins. "But it seems to be working."
Gladden is amazed at the amount of people in attendance. "I didn't realise the flea market would be so busy," he shakes his head seemingly a little bewildered. "But I have to say there's a great atmosphere here and everyone is so friendly."
Kareemunnisa Nandi Aggier Hussain, from Bangalore but living in Sharjah, is at the flea market for the third time today. Accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter Chandi, she's here to sell her homemade craftwork - jewellery, bags and cushions.
"It's not a commercial venture for me," she explains. "I make these things as a hobby and this gives me the opportunity to sell them. I used to do it in India, but until I discovered Dubai Flea Market I had nowhere to sell my work."
On another table, four students from Sharjah are selling items they've cleared from their homes. Zina Allomary, a 20-year-old graphic design student from Syria, is sharing a stall with her sister Dana and her two friends Aytam and Sara Mammadova. "We had a lot clothes at home that we didn't wear so we thought it would be a good way to sell them and make some extra money," she says. "We came all the way from Sharjah because there's nothing like this there."
It's a fact that Melanie Beese, the brains behind Dubai Flea Market is aware of. So successful has her venture become that not only is it her full time job, but she also now has plans to open another in Sharjah this October.
The 35-year-old German, who has lived in Dubai for the last eight years, started Dubai Flea Market when she found herself tiring of shopping in malls.
"I love shopping and, when I first came to Dubai, I used to spend a lot of time in the malls," she explains. "After two years, however, I found myself getting tired of them. They all seemed the same - the same old shops, selling the same old things. What's more, shopping on your own in a mall can be a very lonely, soulless experience."
Growing up in Stuttgart, Beese used to attend flea markets as a child with her family where they bought and sold antiques. "Flea markets are very much a part of the culture in Europe," she says. "And they're great fun. "
Missing a similar shopping type of experience here, she decided to start one up herself. "I remember the first flea market that I held at Safa Park," she recalls. "My friends thought I was crazy. They said it wouldn't work, that people in Dubai were too label conscious. But I did it nonetheless."
Beese put up notices and handed out flyers in Spinneys. "At the first event there were 16 exhibitors and about 1,000 people in attendance," she recalls. "They were all European. I suppose because they were familiar with the concept."
The flea market quickly grew, however, attracting all nationalities. But it was once the recession hit in 2009 that it really took off. "A lot of people were leaving the country and they wanted to get rid of all of their things in one go," explains Beese. "It was great for me," she adds. "If it were not for the financial crisis, it would probably never have become a full-time business."
It's not all clothes and books, according to Beese. People sell art work and crafts, small furniture items, kitchen paraphanelia, ornaments and office equipment. "Everything you can think of," she adds. "We've even had people try to sell half-used face cream or animals like small turtles and fish," she laughs. "Of course we don't allow items like that to be sold here."
The Dubai Flea Market has become so successful that Beese is now branching out. She's already started a designer flea market, which specialises in second-hand designer goods. It's currently being rebranded and will be relaunched in October.
Not only has the flea market given her a livelihood, but it has also benefited her on a personal level too. "I met two of my best friends through the market," she says. "One is an Egyptian woman who was brought up in London. We share a love of antiques. The other is a German girl I met here when she took a stall.
"The whole experience has been great from the start," she adds. "I mean, look at what it has become," she casts her eye around the busy exhibition hall and waves her arm. "There are people of every nationality, selling everything you can think of.
"I love the fact people are so friendly here," she adds. "As a woman, for example, I can approach a man and start a conversation very easily which I can't do everywhere.
"The flea market is about more than just buying and selling. It's a very social experience, everyone helps each other here and people tell me that they love it. It definitely brings out the best in the people of Dubai."
When First Friday of every month, from 2pm to 7pm
Where For summer months, the market is in the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), Za'abeel Hall 2, in Dubai; otherwise it takes place in Safa Park
Table fee Dh300 at DWTC, Dh250 in Safa Park; exhibitors must use the online booking form to reserve a spot
Visitors' fee free
For more information visit www.dubai-fleamarket.com
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