"What is it?" the man challenged me.
He held between his thumb and pointer finger a yellowish object the size of a ping-pong ball. I tapped on its dry, mottled shell and heard a hollow reverb. I inhaled its faint citrus scent. "Dried lemon," I responded, aceing his exam.
The Iranian expat nodded his approval and moved onto the next overflowing bin at the souk in Dubai, quizzing me on exotic spices, nuts, and dried fruits and flowers. I was scoring well. Then he asked the obvious question: "Now, what do you buy?"
Let the real games begin.
On a recent flight from Thailand to Washington, I had 14 hours on the ground in Dubai. I spent less than a minute staring at Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and the remainder of the time poking around the souks in Deira, the oldest section of the United Arab Emirates city. The four markets, each of which is dedicated to specific products, cluster around the Dubai Creek. The spice, gold and perfume shops sit on the eastern side of the narrow waterway, about 25 minutes by cab from the airport, depending on traffic. The textile souk rests on the opposite shore and is accessible by traditional wooden boats called abra.
The city's megamalls, man-made islands and modern skyscrapers emit a Miami-in-the-desert vibe. The souks, by comparison, represent the old Arabic tradition of commerce and community. Instead of air-conditioning and set price tags, you will find lazy fans and amicable haggling between customers and shopkeepers.
On a Sunday afternoon in July, the hottest month of the year, the market was a humming honeycomb of shoppers and hustlers. Men appeared by my side, touting knockoff designer bags and watches. I finally shook them inside the spice souk, a covered hall with minimal room to walk, much less hawk.
Bulging sacks of earth-hued spices and delicate dried flowers heaved against the storefronts. I went inside Ghuloom Hussain Ali Naqi Trading and met Idrees Khan, who wore a backward baseball cap and spoke impeccable English. Lucite boxes filled with saffron - the crown jewel of the spice trade - rested on the counter. I followed Idrees back outside, where he described the contents of each container and their uses. Holding up frankincense from Oman, he told me that burning the aromatic will chase away the evil eye, which, he warned, could be setting its sights on my "big car or big money."
"I use it every day in front of my shop to keep the evil eye away," he said.
He taught me about alum, a bathroom essential for clumsy shavers, and dried cucumber, which can help settle upset bellies.
"To clear your stomach," he instructed, "soak it overnight and eat it with white rice and yogurt."
Back inside, he covered curries (Indian is spicy; Arabic is sweet), tandooris and teas (senna leaves are said to slim waists). I was compiling a mental shopping list - yes, turmeric and sumac; no, sulfur - when he caught me off-guard.
"This one is Viagra," he said, presenting me with a nut resembling a polished stone.
We looped back to the counter.
"And now," he said with a flourish, "the most important one, red saffron from Iran."
To prove its authenticity, he dropped a few slender threads into a cup of water and we watched the liquid turn from lemonade yellow to deep gold.
"The Chinese, Saudis and Kuwaitis come here for saffron," he said.
I asked the cost. He said 200 dirhams (about $75) for 10 grams, adding, "This is a good price."
The next step was to bargain, but I am not chef-y enough to appreciate the coveted spice, even at half the price. Instead, I left with a small jar of za'atar (about $5) and a free bottle of water to help me survive the short walk to the next shop in 113-degree heat.
By the time I reached the fourth vendor in a row, I was well-versed in spices and also full. The shopkeepers plied me with free samples: Iranian dates, pistachios, apricots, Arabian coffee beans, camel-milk chocolates. Out of politeness, I bought a small pouch of spices at each store, a $3 admission fee to enter their fragrant world.
At my last stop in the souk, I waited for the third-generation owner to fill my order for black lemon powder. A few people were ahead of me, including a woman in a battoulah who was inspecting the saffron and a lady in a hijab who was protesting the high price of Camelait, a full-cream variety of camel-milk powder. A slender man in a white dishdasha sat on a chair, one sandal off, and watched the salesman dart around the store collecting a homoeopathic remedy for his diabetes. The gentleman and I warmly regarded each other. He opened his mouth and said, "Oman," and gave the thumb's up. Then keeping his digit aloft, he uttered "Dubai."
En route to the gold souk, I veered into stores selling giant pots (for cooking biryani), Pakistani shoes, camel-milk soap and scented oils with such names as Fahrenheit, Lady Million and Hogu Men Super. Once in the jewelry marketplace, I stood outside the window displays, transfixed by the glittery earrings, rings, bangles, cuffs and necklaces that could double as body armour. The cumulative dazzle outshined the sun.
I entered Navrang Jewellers, an Aladdin's cave showcasing nearly 1000 designs. The solicitous staff can speak as many as eight languages, including Marathi, Chinese and Russian; English rolled off their tongues. I accompanied Nitesh Hemani, a sales executive, to the backroom, where glass cases held 21-karat pieces from Bahrain. He pointed out the traditional Arabic style, a delicate filigree with semiprecious stones.
"It is only available in Dubai," he said.
The store also carries pieces from other countries in the East and West. I stepped by three young women roping golden lassos around their necks to inspect ornamentations from India (24 karat), Singapore (20 karat) and Italy (18 karat).
"Our customers buy our jewelry for parties, weddings, outings and film shootings," he said.
The daily grind was not on his list. I asked Nitesh about that other metal.
"Silver? You're wasting your money," he said. "There is no end to gold."
Prices throughout the souk are based on the weight of the item and the market price of gold. The price fluctuates several times a day. At 7:45 that evening, a gram of 21-karat gold was valued at $49; about 15 minutes later, it rose by several dirhams.
I eyed a 121-gram choker with semiprecious stones and a cascading bib that cost about $8550. The ghost of Elizabeth Taylor urged me to try it on, although it was not clear if she was footing the bill. She wasn't satisfied. Give us more grams! Nitesh handed me the same style but heavier, at 219 grams, and pricier, at $16,200. He pulled out a calculator and revealed the real price: $14,800. I looked for Liz, but she was gone.
With so much money on the line, I asked him, how do I know that I am not getting ripped off?
"Dubai is very strict and very safe," he said. "No one cheats. They don't want to spoil the reputation."
To keep businesses honest, he said municipal officials spot-check stores every month and issue fines for false claims. In addition, all gold pieces are stamped with the karat weight.
After Nitesh finished his tutorial, he released me into the blinding gold souk. With confidence, I walked into a smaller shop across the street and asked to see a ring made of Bahrain gold. I checked the stamp and started to bargain.
IF YOU GO
The gold, spice and perfume souks congregate on and around Al Khor Street and Sikkat Al-Khail Road in Deira, less than six miles from the airport. To reach the textile souk, take an abra, or water taxi, for about 25 cents to Bur Dubai.