We cab to the Fish Souk (market). It looks close on the map. And flash, marked with a big swordfish. Twenty-five minutes later we arrive in a wasteland of heat and Dhow port.
It’s forty degrees of hot in Abu Dhabi in September. Early Bedouin settled in here in the 1700s to fish and dive for pearls, they only had small wooden huts and goat hair tents to protect themselves from this rebellious heat. But this is not a history trip and I do not find the Arabian piscine bazaar I expected, with nearby bobbing boats, only an enclosed, air-conditioned warehouse.
We enter the markets uninspiring doors. It’s a massive hall of men, in blue overalls and hairnets, standing in front of 2 meter by 2 meter stainless steel display cabinets. It’s uniform and dull. Industrial. A sprawling intricate grid like pattern of fish, metal and tiles. And men.
The H wanders ahead and suddenly I’m a blond. WOMAN. Sweltering in my long silk dress with black cardigan over the top. The only thing I could fashion that covered a maximum amount of skin. I’m taking photos. Single. White. Female. I could be naked for all the disapproving stares I receive.
One blue man tried to scares me with a small shark from his assortment of fish. I only want him for his picture. It's a friendly scare. Mind.
‘Can you eat at the market? We’d asked the hotel concierge before we set off.
‘Yes you can. You have to buy your fish, then take it to a grilling shop.’
After much wandering, looking no doubt dazed and confused, we select a stall of cheery chaps now touting for our business. We purchase a dozen large shrimps and a small sea bass, then take them to Al Sayad for grilling in his large charcoal oven.
He writes our name in arabic. From right to left. ‘Come back in thirty minutes,’ he says. He had a backlog.
‘Where are you from?’ asked another man with grey teeth, cleaning fish over a sink?
‘New Zealand,’ I say. He smiles. I could have said anywhere.
We wait for our meal. Men in kandooras (cotton robes) bring large fish to prepare. One stall holder hams it up for the camera. A woman in a black abaya wears a gold face plate, similar to a scold’s bridle, brings her fish for grilling. We women make up about 2% of the people in this place. Obviously buying fish for lunch is a man’s job.
Our meal is delivered in tin dishes. Al Sayed gives us paper towels and a sheet of plastic. We straddle a wooden stool beside another café, the plastic our table cloth, our hands our forks. The fish is succulent and doused in a spicy mix of chilli, garlic and oil and something red. The shrimps are sweet if a little over cooked. We suck them dry.
The men who’ve been watching me avert their curious gazes and let us eat in peace. The locals obviously take their cooked lunch home to a set table with cool drinks. The only sit down places here are narrow shops with plastic tables accommodating the blue and red workers eating lunches of rice and fish and vegetables by hand.
It's sweaty and sticky but one of the best lunches I’ve ever eaten.
There are no rubbish bins so we give Al Sayad back our containers and well used paper towels.
‘It was lovely,’ I tell him. He blows me a kiss.
We step out from the relative cool into the exfoliating heat to hail a cab. I expect to see a mirage over the car park, such is the shimmer of heat on concrete and metal at midday.
Two men in lime green overalls walk past their fingers entwined. A lovers lunch. Perhaps. We slip into a taxi and depart to find a more beaten track at the Abu Dhabi Mall. And a little water and soap.