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Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar

Into the UAE: A Tribute to Mina Zayed, Stories of Labor and Love

Within each market, there are hundreds of men and women who have served Mina Zayed for generations: Iranians, Indians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, among many more. Their stories need to be remembered.

Nov 28, 2020

Development is a strange word. While it carries with it the promise of glitzy new things, it equally bears the vestiges of the past. No matter how shiny the surface might be, there is a distinct hollowness which cannot be filled by money, technology or shiny trinkets. This hollowness might have once been a melting pot of different histories, knowledge and stories. Today, these are the first few things to be discarded and erased from our memory.
But we must hold onto them firmly. We must not forget the labour and love of those who have served in Mina Zayed for generations. Their voices deserve to be heard, and it is imperative for their stories to be remembered.
The Plant Souk on the day of the Mina Plaza Tower demolition. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
Inaugurated in 1972, Mina Zayed has served as the central port in Abu Dhabi for over 40 years. “It has been distinguished as one of the regional pioneers in the maritime industry, playing an instrumental role in boosting Abu Dhabi’s international trade,” according to Khaleej Times.
But Mina Zayed is much more than that. It is made of a plant souk, fruit and vegetable market, meat market, carpet souk, date souk and a wholesale souk. Within each market, there are hundreds of men and women who have found a home in this city: Iranians, Indians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and many more. As you spend time in Mina Zayed, you quickly realize that the boundaries of faith, language and nationality dissolve into the multicultural world.
In the plant souk, you may find a Bangladeshi manager and Keralite worker speaking in Urdu with each other. In the date souk, a Syrian and Kashmiri worker can be found sitting outside their shop basking in the evening sun. On Diwali, you would find the remaining fishermen at Mina Port distributing mithai (a type of sweet) among each other, regardless of their faith. When you have been away from your home for decades, those who have worked alongside you, day in and day out, somehow become your family.
Anna Varghese is the only woman running a shop at the plant souk among hundreds of men.
Anna holds up her favourite flower, Phalaenopsis. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
“I am the only woman in this market. There are more than 800 men here. Before, Mina used to be an Iranian market. Only Iranian shops were here. In the early 2000s, they allowed other people to come. That’s when my husband started this shop. I also began working with him. He passed away in 2013. That time, my son and daughter were in America. But I didn’t want to leave. My husband had made me promise him that I wouldn’t close this shop. Even I loved the business. So my son and his family moved back to Abu Dhabi and now he’s working with me.”
While some migrants have been able to bring their families to Abu Dhabi, many have not. These men sneak pockets of time from their busy day to speak with their families.
A Bangladeshi vendor shows a photograph of his daughter. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
“I have been working at this shop for ten years. I was around 18 or 19 years old when I left Bangladesh to come here. We needed money and I wanted to give my family a good life. My son is going to a good school but he’s studying online these days because all schools are closed. My daughter is still very young. I go home after every two years but I talk to my family every day.”
Nisar video calls his wife and children in Kerala. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
“I like this market because it is an open market. If I worked at a supermarket, I would just have to sit on one chair the whole day. Over here, I can walk over to my friends in other shops and talk with them. I feel free in this market. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Some people say this will become a white people area.”
Mohammed Hadis prepares flower pots for an upcoming order. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
There is an oasis of knowledge that lives within these markets. Mohammed Hadis knows the name of every plant in the souk, how much sunlight each plant needs and how to differentiate between good soil and bad soil. There is no catalogue or inventory for this knowledge. It has been passed down through generations of plant keepers who have become masters of their craft.
An Iranian pot shop on the day of the Mina Tower demolition. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
On Nov. 27, the Mina Plaza Tower was demolished as part of the second phase of the Mina Zayed redevelopment project. The plan includes a complete overhaul of the souks, including a new fish market and plant souk, and the addition of a new seasonal market. While the existing shops have been allowed to remain open until the port regeneration is completed, the vision to transform Mina Zayed into a top tourist and commercial destination still remains.
Aftermath of the Mina Tower demolition. / Photo Courtesy of Nandini Kochar
What many of us may not know is that NYUAD's old Downtown Campus area used to be a fish market, which was then repurposed for the construction of the university's class buildings. In this way, the new spaces that our institutions occupy today are inextricably linked to the demolition of former spaces. That fish market too must have been a melting pot of different histories, knowledge and stories.
The question is, who is this redevelopment for? And will the future of Mina Zayed hold space for these men and women?
For more stories on Mina Zayed, visit Humans of Abu Dhabi on Instagram or Facebook.
Nanini Kochar is a Columnist. Email her at
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