Two rows of open-front stores line a short stretch of the E88 where it cuts in between two cinnamon-red mountain ridges, somewhere along what used to be the main route to the East coast. To the uninitiated, the Friday Market, or Souq Al Juma’a, may look like nothing more than a collection of random roadside junk shops backed by low-slung tenements. The question of driving on certainly hangs in the air on first approach. But then, invariably, cars slow down as the people inside take in the scene and, metre-by-metre, become intrigued.
This, after all, is one of the UAE’s most beloved markets. It exudes an indefinite sense that, amid the plastic-fantastic of toys and household goods that first catch the eye, treasure awaits. Which it does, in a way. There are carpets – not excellent, but good enough to haggle over and put a homely touch to one's transient life here. Many who come to this market come looking for just that: ways to beautify homes, keep kids entertained. As a result, the assemblage of goods on offer includes plants, flowers, earthenware, slides, swing sets, garden ornaments, baskets, woven mats, pots, pans, cushions and much else besides.
Street food at the Friday Market, meanwhile, is minimalist bordering on dubious. Salty and slightly charred corn on the cob (no butter) and fresh coconut are the most common, but you may also be lucky enough to get your hands on various sweet and savoury treats made on the fly by small groups of women who sometimes set up shop under one of the trees.
Yet the main attraction is doubtlessly the fresh produce. The market has been running since the early 1990s, when local farmers began selling their harvest from the back of pickup trucks here once a week. Before long, the market had become so popular that permanent stalls and daily operation made sense. Today, several brick-and-mortar shops specialise in selling vegetables and fruit, grown locally or just across the border in Oman. Some farmers still simply spread out large cloths filled with anything from crunchy arugula and radishes to sweet melons and guavas. The mangoes alone are worth the trip.
The area is naturally blessed: Masafi means ‘pure water’ in Arabic and water has always been the lifeblood of this part of the Emirates. An unusually wet microclimate makes it possible to grow tropical fruit and juicy vegetables here, in the middle of an otherwise arid region. Not only that: Masafi village also sits on top of a natural aquifer; an underground lake fed by rainfall filtered through hundreds of metres of rock. As a result, Masafi promotes itself as “natural deep earth water”, giving it a slight edge over its competitors, most of whom sell desalinated seawater.
In recent years, the Friday Market has seen a lot of change. After a serious fire destroyed many of the stalls in May 2015, it was uncertain if and in what form the market would reopen. Despite government help not materialising, most of the affected retailers managed to re-open by the end of that year. However, at a price: a number of retailers left while several carpet sellers, unable to afford new stock, switched to cheaper goods such as kitchenware and toys.
What remains is a somewhat garish but surprisingly worthwhile stopover – not unlike the UAE itself. A haphazard sense of thrown-togetherness permeates the market. Not even its name is accurate. To some, it will probably always be a glorified pit stop en-route elsewhere, while those who stay around long enough to discover its covert charm may even become fond of it. I certainly did.