As many already know, the United Arab Emirates is home to over 200 nationalities. Many view this as characteristic of the UAE’s recent modernisation and economic development, which has attracted migrants from all over the world looking for opportunities for work and prosperity. While this might be the case for quite a few of the UAE’s population today, the history of the UAE’s diverse migrant population goes way back — back to even before the union in 1971. The following photo series explores the stories and lives of four men who have called the UAE home for decades.
Niaz Ahmad, watchmaker in Abu Dhabi since 1974
Niaz is a watchmaker and horologist from Pakistan who has been in the UAE since 1974. He came to the UAE at age 18, after learning the tricks of the trade in Pakistan, and has been working in the world of watches since. Stopping in Ras Al Khaimah first, Niaz came to Abu Dhabi in search of better work opportunities for himself, eventually opening his first store in the capital in 1981.
‘Watchmaking and repair requires a strong, sound mind, logic and a lot of mental calculation’, he says after I ask him why he chose to be a watchmaker. Niaz is very well known among the local community, and our conversation is interrupted frequently, as customers stop by his stall regularly with their watches in hand ready to be repaired.
It’s hard to miss Niaz’s shop, with its bright green signage, his blasting radio and the thousands of watches in the windowsill. ‘The best watch to purchase is a Rado watch, but I am happy with the Casio I currently have’.
‘I have four daughters in Pakistan’ Niaz tells me. ‘I try to find good, hardworking men for them here in Abu Dhabi and I marry them off. I want them to have a good life’.
When I ask him how often he speaks to his daughters, Niaz says that he only speaks with them a couple of times a week, but that his wife likes to call him multiple times a day from Pakistan. ‘My wife calls me too much!’ he complains jokingly.
‘My family is in Pakistan but I don’t want to leave the UAE — this is my home and this is where my work and my shop is… I am very comfortable here’, he says.
Mahmoud Hussein Aly, grocer in Dubai since 1985
Mahmoud is a grocer and dessert maker whose family has called Dubai home for over 100 years. When I sit with Mahmoud to chat about his family history, he is very welcoming and excited to share his story.
‘My grandfather came to the UAE from Iran almost one hundred years ago’ he proudly shares. ‘It was the end of the Second World War and a lot of people were leaving Iran… My grandfather was a good man. He started a bakery and a dessert shop in Bur Dubai and he was also an educator. He used to educate children, teach them how to read the Quran and how to write, all for free’.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Mahmoud’s father opened a grocery store and became a merchant and businessman. In 1985, Mahmoud began working for his father and subsequently opened his own grocery store (pictured here) in 1999.
‘I have a close relationship with all my customers and that’s why I never leave the store for too long. I like to stay here, look after the business. I also make sure I bring the best quality products and that all my produce is fresh’, he adds.
Although Mahmoud has children who currently live in Iran with their mother, he isn’t planning on leaving the UAE anytime soon. Mahmoud is also a polyglot- he knows six languages, which he learnt while living in the UAE.
Mahmoud says that this grocery store is his first and last business. ‘I am happy with this store, plus I haven’t made enough money to open a second one. I have four of my children and wife in Iran but I don’t plan on leaving. Dubai is my home. I was born here. This is my home’. Photo by Darah Ghanem.
Reza, baker in Sharjah since 1978
While walking down the corniche in Sharjah, I was lucky enough to get a whiff of Reza’s stall. Reza, who wouldn’t share his last name with me, is a baker who’s been making fresh regag sandwiches for Sharjah’s locals and visitors for over forty years.
‘I used to only make them with eggs and dried fish — now I have to add cream cheese, Chips Oman and Nutella to the bread! Times have really changed. But what to do? If that’s what people want I’ll make it!’ says Reza, handing me a cream cheese sandwich I didn’t ask for. ‘Eat, eat!’ he demands.
Like Mahmoud, Reza grew up in the UAE and became a bread baker after learning the skill from his father, who opened his first bakery near the Gold Souk in Deira before the union of the UAE.
‘I also make hummus, foul, and a special vegetable dish I invented. I recently started selling them’, he shares with me afterwards.
An Emirati lady, who was waiting in line for her order, also joins in on the conversation and shares, ‘this place used to be so tiny, but mashallah, it’s huge now. My family lives in Abu Dhabi, but we’ve been coming to Sharjah for over 10 years to have Reza’s sandwiches’.
Reza, who has a charming charisma and a lot of energy, works in the shop with his younger brothers. His wife also lives with him in Sharjah, and he has no kids. He says he is happy in the UAE, and has always considered it home, although he does believe that his hometown in Iran, Shiraz, is like ‘heaven’. Photo by Darah Ghanem.
Abdelhaq, barber in Sharjah since 1992
Abdelhaq is the local barber in Al Mureijah neighbourhood in the heart of Sharjah. Abdelhaq, originally from Delhi, grew up in the UAE and was taught to cut hair and attend to the men in the neighbourhood by his father.
I met Abdelhaq the first time a few months back during Ramadan, while exploring Sharjah. I remember walking into his shop just as the maghreb prayer was about to begin, and he was cutting open a huge watermelon . He was very quick to offer me a piece.
Abdelhaq’s father opened this shop- Al Abyad Gents Salon- in Sharjah in 1974 and Abdelhaq has been working in his father’s shop for over 26 years. ‘My father passed away in this shop a few years back’, he tells me while offering me a stool to sit.
‘Don’t you want to go back to India after all these years away?’
‘No, this is where my life is’.
Darah Ghanem is a journalist based in Dubai.