Sunday, August 14, 2011

Abu Dhabi's corner stores are stocked with memories, pickles and sweets

Most people of a certain age remember their local grocery shop. In the US they were called five-and-dimes, dépanneurs (literally "to help out of difficulty") in French-speaking Canada, corner or village shops in the UK. There is an iteration of the local grocery in every culture. With the advent of the big box supermarket or its even larger offspring, the hypermarket, corner shops have either died or become stale shadows of their former selves, the convenience store.

The UAE has managed to avoid this trend. Our neighbourhoods are full of tiny stores with amusing names like the Unicorn or the Spike of Prosperty (sic), selling everything from soft drinks to sweets, from hair gel to toothbrushes. They are part of the fabric of Emirati life and culture. National business columnist Manar al Hinai sang the praises of the "dekkan" for their "retro look" and a taste of nostalgia.

A dirham or two short? The owner will let it slide, or you can pay later. They remember you, and know what you buy. Children come by after school to buy sweets or trinkets, and the shopkeeper will bill the parents later. Children in the Emirates might be among the few in the world for whom the song "The Candy Man," from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still resonates.

That may change, at least in Abu Dhabi. This month, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority announced plans to modernise the corner shop, make it more hygienic and enforce food safety measures. All of these are good things. Stories of expired foodstuffs on shelves, refrigerators being shut off at night, or, as this reporter witnessed on one occasion, frozen chickens being left to defrost on top of bags of rice are enough to send you to the nearest Lulu permanently.

Many are already slowly dying; choked by the pace of development and chained by rising rents to ageing buildings while customers move on. Most people now shop at hypermarkets or have moved outside the city centre to Musaffah or the suburbs. Shopkeepers are concerned they may not survive the transition, which would be a shame.

These shops have a character and convenience hypermarkets lack. They are a focal point for the community, children play impromptu cricket or football matches outside their doors. Need a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread? Most corner shops will deliver it to your door free. According to a recent study by the Abu Dhabi Government, there are more than 1,300 such stores open an average of 16 hours a day and generating income of Dh1 billion a year.

The concern is that the UAE "dekkan" will become an Adnoc convenience store, handy for a quick refuelling but devoid of soul.

And what of the corner shopkeeper? Who are they? They smile, when they see us, and they know our flat number by heart, but do we know anything about them? The men behind the counters of those 1,300 corner shops no doubt have interesting stories to tell. These are just a few.

The Cheese and Pickles Centre, King Khalid Street near Elektra

The store certainly lives up to its name. Outside, it's advertised with a garish green and yellow neon sign; inside is a dizzying number of pickles, more than 40 types from all over the Middle East and North Africa, and an even wider selection of cheeses - from fresh, unpasteurised, locally made varieties to imports from all over Europe.

In the pickle aisle, Amar Basanboul sells five assortments of mixed pickled vegetables. One is made with harissa, a North African paste made with chilli peppers, one without chillis, and there are two made with beetroot, tinging the pickling liquid purple. "This one is an Egyptian recipe made with preserved lemon. This one is made with cucumber; it is from Lebanon," Mr Basanboul explains. "What they eat, we provide."

It was Mr Basanboul's father, Mohamed Basanboul, who started the store. He came to Abu Dhabi from the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. The Hadhrami have long been known as sailors and traders, and their descendants are found as far away as India, where they established some of that country's oldest mosques, and in Singapore. In more modern history, the region is known as the birthplace of the bin Laden family.

Like his forebears, Mohamed Basanboul left looking for business opportunities. He established Cheese and Pickles after spotting a gap in the market. "When my father set up the store in 1980 he found that no one sold traditional Arabic cheeses, no one sold pickles or cheese," Amar Basanboul says. Now the store sells three types of labneh, fresh local goat cheeses among others.

Amar, who is 41, took over the store after his father died in 1996, but its raison d'être never changed. "These are Arabic cheeses that you can't find anywhere else." He has to have so many varieties to please the Arab diaspora that wants a taste of home.

Then there is the olive bar: 27 sorts from Italy, France, Greece, Syria, the Palestinian territories and just about every other country that has ever grown olives. He has olives stuffed with cheese, green olives stuffed with tiny, whole chillis. "Westerners love these ones, but they are spicy," he says.

Most customers are Arabs looking for a taste of home, or a cure for an ailment like thyme water for stomach aches or gas, or fresh and ground carob bean for constipation. Olive oil he sells by the crate. "The best tasting oil is from Palestine, and you can use it to treat paralysis, hair loss or to lower cholesterol," he claims. "If your body is weak you should have your wife rub you down with olive oil, take one Panadol and go to sleep. The next day you will feel revived."

He also caters for flights of fancy. "This is the doum fruit," he says as he points to a desiccated, rock-hard husk that looked like a brown lemon. "Egyptians and Sudanese children pull these off trees and eat them, and [as adults] they come here to relieve childhood memories." Like most everything in the store, Mr Basanboul claims, doum is good for your health. "Like hibiscus, it helps with blood pressure. If you drink it cold, it brings it down; if it is hot, it brings it up." He does, however, qualify this particular claim. "I don't know if that is true, but that is what they say."

Mr Basanboul's mission is to keep alive the Arabic food culture in Abu Dhabi. Business at his store has declined by a third in the past years mostly because of construction of what might become a new landmark building. The building, however, has been under construction since 2006, limiting parking and obscuring his store from view. Though he also blames the popularity of fast food for the decline in foot traffic through his store, he remains optimistic. "When they get sick from the Big Macs, they will go back to natural food."

Middle East Flour Mill & Foodstuff, Muroor and 25th Street

Abu Dhabi was a different place when Abdul Rashid Kunduerel, 61, arrived 42 years ago as a taxi driver. He followed his brother, Mohamed Kunduerel, 65, with dreams of a better life for his family. They found it. Six years later they owned a store and brought their wives to Abu Dhabi. Their children were born and raised here, and they have gone on to have successful careers in the UAE. Mr Rashid says this is rarer these days.

"There are less families here now because of the cost of rent," he says. "Many are going back." That has changed the neighbourhood along Muroor Road where he and his brother have their shop.

In 1980, when the brothers got together the money to set up their corner store, the area around Muroor and 25th Street was largely empty except for a few villas and a handful of low-rise apartment blocks that housed families. "It used to be about 20 per cent locals with a mix of Indian and Pakistani families and bachelors; now it is 50/50 families and bachelors," Mr Kuduerel says. The Emiratis have moved to Khalifa City and most of the rest have returned home. The only thing keeping any families in his area is the Pakistani school across the street. There have been many evictions from illegally partitioned villas recently and that has shrunk an already dwindling pool of customers.

The store sits nestled between the Commando Saloon and the Ideal Bakery. The mill for which the shop is named lies in a back corner of the store; it's still used, but infrequently. "Families used to come to me to grind the spices they bought at the market, but now there is no business for that - everything comes in packs," Mr Kuduerel says.

Business was slow on Monday despite the stream of children heading home from school. "Now there are a lot of bachelors and they all go to Musaffah, and most of the families go to the big shops like Carrefour."

Mr Rashid feels he has to stock just about everything to keep competitive. You can't get an iPod in the Middle East Flour Mill, but you can get a close facsimile, an AM/FM radio shaped like an iPod that costs only Dh30.

"I try to keep prices down. I cannot compete with Carrefour, but between other groceries and me, there is a huge difference." The difference appears to be that he has turned his shop into an off-brand market, crammed to the rafters like Noah's Ark with everything you might need for daily life. His customers appear to be mostly South Asian bachelors. One, a Pakistani gold-and-white taxi driver plops a super-sized can of Tang on the counter and asks, "Discount?" Mr Rashid laughs at him. Maybe in the past, he might have given a discount or store credit, but not now.

Mr Rashid struggles to keep up with a rapidly changing city. He points to his biggest adjustment: a TV screen showing feeds from six different security cameras. A year or so ago children began stealing from his store, coming through his now-shuttered back door to steal candy and sodas.

He speaks wistfully about Abu Dhabi in its early days. "The city centre used to be full of small businesses and shops, and now that is all being sent to Musaffah." Not all the change has been bad. "When I came here there were few roads and no signals. There was sand everywhere and the only cars were Land Rovers. There was one landmark on Hamdan Street - the TV building - that everyone used to navigate."

Now, he struggles to find his way around. "When we go, we are not sure how we will ever get back. Even Musaffah is becoming like Abu Dhabi - crowded."

Grand Supermarket, Rotana Mall, Khaleej al Arabi Street

"The flats here are all empty," complains Ebrahim Mohamed Haje, the bespectacled Indian proprietor of Grand Supermarket. A lot has changed in the eight years since he came to Abu Dhabi. Back then, Grand Supermarket may have indeed been grand, as no doubt was the Rotana Mall, the small Khaleej al Arabi Street shopping centre to which the store is attached.

A decade ago, it towered over the other buildings. Now it is imprisoned by a sheer wall of gleaming high-rises and luxury car showrooms. The new construction has locked out and strangled the businesses within. What was once a thriving, if crowded, neighbourhood near the Corniche has emptied as parking became impossible to find and rents skyrocketed. Many of the existing buildings are either slated for demolition or refurbishment, although little of either has been done in years.

As a result, business is down. Rent for the premises is about Dh65,000 a year, cheap for Abu Dhabi, which allows Mr Haje and his colleagues from Calicut in Kerala to make a decent living. But there seems little hope that business will go anywhere but down.

One employee, Abdul Rashid, is relatively new to the UAE, having spent only four years in Abu Dhabi. He handles the accounts, going over a list of customers on a register made of a discarded carton of cigarettes. He barely looks up when a customer wanders in. Mr Haje, meanwhile, spends most his time pacing the store with his hands behind his back, gazing at items on the shelf.

There is a steady stream of customers despite the fact most residents in the area shop at the Choithrams Express half a block away. A security guard comes to buy snacks before his night shift; a man asks for a pack of cigarettes; another comes for a pint of milk. A dirham here, a dirham there: this is how Grand Supermarket stays in business.

Tucked in an alcove next to the register is a children's paradise. Shelves stacked to the ceiling with sweets ought to make Grand Supermarket a prime destination for children - the Willy Wonka's of Abu Dhabi - but most of the children have long since left. One girl wanders in to gawk at the towering racks. She's one of the few who live in the area, Mr Haje says. The girl must just be killing time. She leaves without buying.

What remains are mostly residents of company-owned apartments, the nearby Corniche Towers, for example, a mix of westerners and South-east Asians.

The mall, full of tailoring shops with obscure Italian names and souvenir shops selling gilded plastic, is empty. Shopkeepers sit in a circle in the middle of the atrium gossiping, but look up expectantly whenever a head pokes in through the entrance.

Like many of the older parts of Abu Dhabi, the mall was built quickly and forgotten almost as quickly. Partly, the inability to find parking relegated it to becoming one of the many forgotten warrens of the old city, invisible from the road, nearly inaccessible by car. People shop at bigger stores or have moved to new neighbourhoods. "They don't come here," Mr Ibrahim says.

Still, in that typical Abu Dhabi take on evolutionary theory, Grand Supermarket has found a way to survive. It has created itself a niche service, with a delivery business the bigger stores do not provide.

Najla Grocery, Al Bateen Co-op, Defence Road

Tucked between the far larger Shaheen grocery and a branch of the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society, Najla Grocery stays in business by catering to shoppers in a hurry. "My prices are the same as the co-op, but it is faster to come here than go into the market," says Abdul Ghafour, 36. Shoppers stay for a few minutes, buy what they need and leave, or they simply park in the street, honk, and have goods delivered to them.

To accommodate the desires of his customers, Mr Ghafour seems to have tried to stuff an entire hypermarket into a shop the size of a modest bedroom. Footballs dangle from nets hung from the ceilings, toothbrushes are found between the soy sauce and breadcrumbs on the shelf. Bulky items unable to fit on any rack litter the floor. Navigating the shop requires you to look down as often as you do forward.

Customers squeeze themselves into the rare gaps through which two people can fit so that one or the other can pass by. The effect is rather like a third-class carriage on an Indian train; little wonder, then, that customers linger for as short a time as possible. Perhaps that is also why Mr Ghafour has employed a small man as a stockboy. The man, from Mr Ghafour's hometown of Tirur in Kerala, declines to give his name, but he proves adept at navigating the narrow spaces in the back, all but invisible as he scrambles through the jumble fetching items for the long queue of waiting customers.

Business remains good for Mr Ghafour; customers are constant and plentiful. Unlike many of his compatriots in the small grocery business, he does not have to offer home delivery to stay competitive and seems to be unconcerned with pleasing his customers - they seem to come to him by compulsion. One man complains loudly at being forced yet again to carry the jugs of water to his car himself. "This is the last time," he says angrily. Mr Ghafour shrugs. The man will be back.

The Najla sits along a strip of stores in the bustling Al Bateen co-op, an old and still popular strip mall in the western edge of the city. The KFC there does brisk business, and traffic spills out of the parking lot and onto King Khalid Street, which is always busy. As the sun goes down an entire lane of traffic disappears as cars jostle for position to get into the shopping centre, which has seen better days. Parents bring their children for a taste of their own childhood; as evening prayers end, herds of boys and girls loiter; bachelors sit out on the green spaces to have dinner or just chat; taxi drivers come for a break during their 14-hour shifts. It seems to be one of the few places in the capital where each cross-section of society is present and mingles. This is partly a function of its location. Unlike much of the island, Al Bateen has gone relatively untouched by the building boom; there is still room for old Abu Dhabi here.

This, too, may go, however, as a result of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Initiative's 2030 plan, which will target stores such as the Najla for modernisation or demolition.

"I have heard that I may have to move," Mr Ghafour says. "I am trying to find new premises." He pays about Dh95,000 a year in rent, which, judging by the mobs swarming his store, he can pay easily. Should he be forced to move, Mr Ghafour feels, he will be hard pressed to find a location as profitable.