Dubai: Growing up with the UAE for 50 years is an experience that only a few expatriates get to savour. Indian expatriate Ponnampadikkal Mohamed Ashraf is one such veteran who marked the 50th anniversary of his arrival in this country on May 18, 2022. The 75-year-old Abu Dhabi resident is immensely happy and grateful for having spent five decades of his life in the UAE and is now coming up with his memoir.
Walking down memory lane, Ashraf told Gulf News that he landed on the shores of the UAE when the country was just five-months-old after the Union of the Federation in 1971. “Not everyone used to arrive here with visas in those days. I was lucky to have arrived with a visa that I got through my uncle Abdulla, who was working in Dubai,” recollected Ashraf who has retained his first passport and visa. “I arrived on the ship Dwaraka from Bombay (now Mumbai). Prior to that, I obtained my passport from Madras (now Chennai).”
Ashraf had completed his BA in Economics from Christ College, Irinjalakuda, near his hometown Kodungallur in Kerala. Though he was a graduate, the first payment he received just 50 paise (Qatari/Dubai Riyal in circulation in Dubai and Northern Emirates then), he said. “That was not for a proper job, but a simple task, which became an unforgettable experience,” he said. The task was to read out a letter for a young man, written by his wife. “He had left home just a day after his wedding. I hesitated to read the letter initially, but on his request I read it and also wrote a reply for him. Almost 20 years later, I saw him again as a building painter in Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, he passed away soon after that. He was buried here as his wife and son did not wish to receive his body since he had never visited them. However, I still consider that 50 paise as the lucky charm that later helped me earn the kind of salaries that I had wished for — sometimes even more than what I expected.”
Given his educational background, Ashraf never considered taking up menial jobs. “I had to leave the cramped building in Al Rigga in Deira where I stayed with many young men. Back then, we did not have beds to sleep. We slept on bed sheets spread out on the floor.”
First colour photo
After leaving Dubai, Ashraf headed to Abu Dhabi. He then got a job with a Pakistani plantation company that was planting trees in Al Ain and Al Wathba areas. “Abu, the owner of Elite Store in Abu Dhabi, introduced me to the company and I was appointed in a supervisory role. I was offered the salary that I had demanded — BD1,00 (Bahraini dinar in use then in Abu Dhabi) . I worked there for three months and settled all my debts back home.”
Ashraf said it was during his tenure in that company that the first colour photos in his life were taken. “This was important for one more reason. Those photos were taken during the visit of the then President and the UAE’s Founding Father, late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to the plantation site. I remember taking photos with Sheikh Zayed also. Unfortunately, I did not get copies of those photos, but I got copies of some other pictures taken on the same day,” he said.
UAE’s early telephone operator
Ashraf’s next stint was as one of the early telephone operators in the UAE. “Abu’s friend Ismail got me a job as a telephone operator with Abu Dhabi Telephone and Telegraph Company, which eventually became etisalat. I joined ADTT as an operator in February 1973.”
One of the vivid memories of his job with ADTT was about his photo appearing in an Abu Dhabi-based publication named ‘Gulf Chronicle’. “The photo of my colleagues and I working on the old-styled telephone switchboard was used in a report,” said Ashraf. At ADTT, he also handled the cash counter. “Public telephone booth was very important in those days. People had to come over there to make international calls,” Ashraf said.
However, little did he expect that one such international caller would change his life.
“One day, in 1975, a man named Ary Cock booked an urgent call to the Netherlands. He gave me $100. I put it in his name, along with the receipt. He could not get that call answered. Mr Cock went back dejected, but did not take his money. He came again the next day with another $100. When I told him that the amount he paid the day before was still with me, he said he didn’t take it back because he was trying to call his ailing father, who passed away that day. Mr Cock was so impressed with my honesty that he offered me a job in his company for a salary of BD2,50, which was very big in those days.”
In the mornings, Ashraf used to work at the Ham Dredging Company, where Cock got him employed. In the afternoon, he would return to his job at ADTT. “Once Mr Cock went to Amsterdam. He came back in two weeks and gave me BD2,75 instead of BD250, Ashraf said.”
Era of computers
Ashraf then resigned from ADTT and started working at Ham Dredging as a technical officer. He remained in that position for three years. Subsequently, he joined International Computers Limited (ICL) UK as a “breakdown controller” of computers, he said. “Those were early days of computers. I was in the maintenance administration section. When we used to get complaint calls, I had to allocate engineers to fix the issues and do the satisfaction survey once the job was over,” he said.
Ashraf worked in the ICL for 20 years and retired as a manager in 2001. “I used to draw more than Dh10,000. So, my family could live a decent life,” he said. Ashraf had brought his wife Fouzia over to the UAE, soon after their marriage in 1976, and she also worked for nearly 35 years at Bank de Paribas and ADCO, which later merged with ADNOC Group.
After leaving the company in 2001, Ashraf ran a trading company for eight years with a partner. Thereafter, he established his own company — Prudence IT solutions.
“I am grateful to this country and its great leaders who shower their love and kindness, not only upon the citizens, but also on the vast expat population. I am thankful that my family lived happily here. I could educate both my daughters abroad and we travelled to so many countries by air and on cruise ships.”
Ashraf is now all set to publish a collection of his memoirs based on his life in the UAE and his foreign trips. The book will be written in Malayalam, his mother tongue. “It will be titled ‘From Kodungallur to Colorado’ (from my home town to the last place that we visited some months ago),” he said.