The bustling souk weaves stories of the capital’s rich history
Massive development projects in the city of Abu Dhabi have not tarnished the charm of an all-time favorite destination in the capital. The Mina Carpet Market or the Afghan Carpet Market as it is popularly known remains a haunt of Abu Dhabi residents as well as tourists. It’s a walk through time, yesterday and today.
The bustling souk nestled near the port of Mina exudes a rare, rustic charm in a city that is rapidly becoming a global tourist destination. The market is a maze of around 100 shops that sell some of the best and most affordable rugs. Their walls speak of Abu Dhabi‘s rich history.
Long before the emirate transformed from a sleepy fishing hamlet into a modern metropolis in the span of four decades, the market catered to niche customers including wealthy sheikhs and rulers. After the construction of Mina Port in 1972, trade began to flourish and Afghan merchants brought intricate hand-woven carpets to Abu Dhabi. The Mina market, as it existed at the time, was just a patch of desert near the port.
Abdul Mannan, 65, one of Mina’s oldest carpet traders, says when he came to Abu Dhabi in the 1980s, there was just a group of traders and a small tent. He was only 18 when he landed in Abu Dhabi with a handful of Afghan rugs.
In the beginning there was only a tent
Ghousudhin, 62, does not come out of his room on the first floor of his shop until after sunset. He is one of the first Afghan traders still doing business in the market. He spends his evenings strolling in the market and joking with the young traders who have mostly taken over the business from their fathers and uncles. Only a few of his friends are still alive, he says.
“We are only a few left behind. Many went home and died,” says Ghousudhin, who recalls how the market turned into what it is today.
“I came to Abu Dhabi in 1989. It was a different world then. There were no roads or air conditioners,” he recalls, sitting in the cool comfort of his store.
Ghousudhin says the rug market came into existence only through the generosity of Sheikh Zayed, whose framed photo hangs in the seller’s shop.
“One day Sheikh Zayed came to the market and he felt bad that we were selling carpets under the hot sun. He moved us to a small building where the fish market is now,” he says.
The founding father ordered the construction of the current market and provided each merchant with a shop. “He used to visit us every few months and buy a rug from every store. It wasn’t that he wanted so many rugs, but he wanted to help us,” says Ghousudhin, who adds that he owes his life and shop to “Baba Zayed.”
For the love of Zayed
Sheikh Zayed’s legacy still lives on in the market. A viral video that circulated on social media a few years ago showed an unidentified Emirati asking an Afghan trader to sell a portrait of Sheikh Zayed on a carpet. The man in the video, Moosa Khan, refuses, saying, “That’s my baba Zayed.”
Khan tells Khaleej times that, even if someone filled his shop with cash, he would not sell the painting. “My father had the carpet made in Turkey as a tribute to Sheikh Zayed. Even when he died two years ago, he told me never to sell this picture for money.
He got his share of fame when later Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now the president of the United Arab Emirates, visited the man and pinned a “Year of Zayed” badge on his shirt. Later, Sheikh Mohamed took to Twitter to express his admiration for the trader’s dedication and undying love for Sheikh Zayed.
A bargain hunter’s favorite
Over the years, the market has expanded to feature a variety of rugs. Traders say the pandemic has taken its toll, with businesses affected in 2020.
“With the lockdown and the closure of Abu Dhabi to tourists, there was hardly any business. Many of us had to go home. But now we are bouncing back,” says Shahzaad Abdul Hameed, who took over shop No. 7 from his father 20 years ago.
From expensive handcrafted Afghan and Kashmiri rugs to machine-made varieties in Turkey, Hameed says the market caters to all tastes and pockets.
Mohammed Gulam, another trader, says tourists and residents flock to the market as it offers the best prices.
” The competition is tough. There are many new stores in Dubai and Sharjah. Malls have also started selling rugs. But we have an advantage because we offer the most affordable prices.
According to him, an Afghan rug that would cost Dh4,000 outside is available for around Dh2,000 in the Mina carpet market.
“Where else will you get such competitive prices? Also, people like to come here and negotiate. We are very accommodating.
The market will retain its old charm
The Mina area is being transformed as part of a massive restoration project announced by the government of Abu Dhabi. The project, launched in two phases, aims to transform the district into a new tourist, commercial and residential destination.
Spanning over three million square meters in Mina Zayed, it will also see the old fish and plant market adjacent to Mina Port transformed into a modern market.
But carpet sellers hope that their market will always remain the same.
“A lot has changed in the last few years, except this market. We hope that, even in the next 30 years, we will still be here to tell the stories of Sheikh Zayed’s generosity and Abu Dhabi’s past.