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Although some call it Aladdin's cave or Ali Baba's secret hideout, this warehouse is so much more than just a treasure trove of gifts, home accessories and furnishings. The Antique Museum in Al Quoz is also enabling arts and crafts workers from developing countries to start their own cottage industries. These people earn a living by making products from seasonal local raw materials, which are brought to Dubai for global distribution.
The outlet is not easy to find, situated in an industrial site where nameless roads are flanked by dust, parked trucks and low-rise budget buildings. A life-size model of a camel standing outside the front entrance gives visitors a much-needed clue, then beyond the ordinary façade is a fairyland of exotic merchandise from all corners of the world.
Like Alice in Wonderland visitors squeeze through, duck and discover fabulous surprises as they meander along the narrow corridors lined with shelves piled high with traditional handicrafts or reproduction antiques. Clay ducks stand in a row while below them carved wooden statues jostle for space. Colourful mosaic lanterns hang from the ceiling, shedding a warm glow onto Omani silver ornaments and khanjars from Yemen.
Eco-friendly products made from recycled materials, including cane trays from the Philippines, bamboo bowls from Vietnam and functional kitchen and office items made from newsprint in Sri Lanka, are customer favourites, along with a mass produced range of Arabian themed souvenirs.
Large wooden carvings and furniture are also randomly arranged about the warehouse. Animal figures guard the entrance to the main showroom, while in a central area a carving of multiple elephants has been sculpted out of tree roots bought at an auction in India. A life-sized driftwood horse made by Cambodian village women stands before the entrance to the headquarters of the Fakih Group of Companies, where Managing Director and Founder, Fakih Nellakandyputhiya Purayil or NP, directs operations. The Antique Museum is part of the group.
Since 1994 NP's company has been gathering handicrafts from disadvantaged villagers in remote areas, supporting their needs at the same time. NP believes it is important for entrepreneurs to realise the responsibility they have for the people who work with and for them.
''I want to strengthen the lives of the poor, especially women and those often neglected by society such as those with disabilities. If you do not educate women you will not get good leaders in Asia,'' says NP. He is constantly planning ways of generating more products and consequently more income for the workers.
''It is vital for their survival. If you buy just one tiny item it provides the crafter with half a day's salary.''
Currently the company supports about 3,850 craftspeople from 27 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the UAE, Nepal, Cambodia, Turkey, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Sometimes he has to adapt villagers' products to suit international market trends. During the early years he found craftswomen in India were making large Indian animals — deer, elephant and peacock — from grass waste. ''I suggested that instead they make camels for the Arab market and helped with the manufacture and design, for these also had to be made small enough for tourists to carry home.''
Initially 18 women were involved in making products suitable for commercial sale. Today some 650 women from that village produce these camels and have secure and a regular income. The Fakih Charitable Trust was set up to help the disadvantaged combat stigma, poverty and ignorance.
It supports many charitable institutions, sponsors events and offers training and seminars to all arts and crafts workers. The Tellicherry born entrepreneur was inspired to help others by his widowed mother, who although poor donated to charity whenever she could.
As a young man in college NP set up his first business selling moringa oleifera, vegetarian drumsticks used in making Indian curry. He first came to Dubai in 1989 to work in a Karama shop, then five years later opened his own outlet.
The Antique Museum may not have real antiques and is not a museum, but it is one of Dubai's hidden gems that has more magic within than its name suggests.
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Source: Cheryl Robertson, Special to Property Weekly
This section features lesser-known places and events that are delightfully distinct in their own way. It could be a quaint little café or simply a charming lake. If it's got character and brings a smile to your face, it's a hidden gemthat will find a place on this page. If you know of a hidden gem, email the Editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org