x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Souq shopkeeper's life is rich in spice

A Dubai spice shop that has been around for many decades has a natural remedy for just about any ailment.

A family business: Hassan Abdulraheem at his shop in Deira's Spice Souq.
A family business: Hassan Abdulraheem at his shop in Deira's Spice Souq.

DUBAI // After a quick glance, Hassan Abdulraheem can usually guess why a particular customer has come into his shop.

"Something for digestion?" the Emirati asks a middle-aged construction worker from Pakistan in Urdu.

Mr Abdulraheem, 50, who can speak what he calls "the trade languages" of Hindi, Urdu and Arabic, picks out a packet of "al Haloul" tea, or senna, from hundreds of colourful and fragrant piles of spices, herbs and oils.

"It is quite effective in cases of constipation," he says.

For more than 35 years, Mr Abdulraheem has been running his family spice and herb shop, Mohammed Ali Abbas Trading. The store has been passed down from generation to generation and is as old as the souq in which it stands.

At more than 100 years old, the Deira Souq is in the heart of Dubai and just a few steps from rows of merchant dhows docked along the shores of the Dubai Creek.

To find Mr Abdulraheem's store with its traditional remedies for ailments of all kinds, particularly those brought on by the heat, one must simply follow their nose.

The spice and herb section of the souq is a testament to the area's history as an important stopover en route to the "Spice Road".

"The spice route was actually more of a water route, with spices and herbs transported via the seas on dhows from the east to the west," says Dr Hasan Al Naboodah, an Emirati historian and the dean of libraries at the UAE University in Al Ain. "It was quite an aromatic route."

In the past, sailors, pearl divers and fishermen would always stop at the spice and herb souq to stock up on items that would protect them against dehydration, skin problems, digestion and fever at sea.

Among those supplies was "halteet", or asafoetida, a spice with a strong, unpleasant smell. It aids circulation and treats intestinal upsets. Its scent is in stark contrast to the aromatic "al murr" or myrrh, a natural antibiotic for injuries and skin.

Mr Abdulraheem learnt about popular local antidotes through his trade and by experimenting with various ingredients on himself. He has come up with some unique concoctions.

"Our local medicine has influences from the traditional Islamic medicine," he says.

One seed found in every local home is the "al haba al souda" or "habat al baraka". Simply known as the black seed, it includes the Nigella sativa, black cumin and kalonji.

The Prophet Mohammed said: "Black seed is a cure for every disease except death."

With Ramadan just around the corner, spice and herb prices are expected to rise as people become creative in the kitchen for iftar.

Recently at the souq, Umm Mohammed Al Ali, an Emirati, accompanied Umm Mohammed Al Baloushi, from Oman, using one of their wheelchairs as a shopping trolley for their purchases.

The two housewives were stocking up on saffron, which is considered one of the most expensive spices in the world, costing at least Dh10 for 1 gram. Saffron doubles in price during Ramadan as it is the core ingredient in local rice dishes and several types of desserts.

"We love shopping around for ingredients for the kitchen. It refreshes us and inspires us to look for unique spices and herbs," says Mrs Al Ali, who chooses to walk around the souq, giving up her wheelchair for the day.

Mr Abdulraheem points out various textures and colours of supplies that are quite popular locally but are not universally known.

The include "ain al afreet", which is red cherry-like incense believed to ward off the Jinn, or genies, and the evil eye.

"There is a cure for everything, even diabetic people can make use of nature's remedies," he says, holding up a bottle of a special tonic, "al sukkari water". Made in Bahrain, it is said to regulate blood sugar.

Yet there are some remedies Mr Abdulraheem shies away from prescribing.

When a gentleman in his 80s asks for "something that would help me to make my wife happy", Mr Abdulraheem simply smiles and recommends: "Saffron tea and a bit of poetry."