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As a young man in his 30s, Bashir Ahmad Khan first came to the UAE in the Ramadan of 1972. Image Credit: Courtesy: Leanne O'Rourkes

Dubai: Pakistani expatriate Bashir Ahmad Khan, now 74, is especially sentimental about this Ramadan. As a young man in his 30s, he had first come to the UAE in the Ramadan of 1972, less than a year after the country was founded. Now, in the ‘Year of the 50th’ anniversary of the UAE, Bashir is returning home for good in a week’s time, right after completing his last Ramadan here.

Bashir lived with his wife in the UAE from 1987 till 2015 and is now looking forward to re-joining his family back home. He has three grown-up children — two sons and a daughter.

Far from home

Bashir, a retired ship captain who has held several offshore and onshore roles over his nearly five-decade career, started his life in the UAE as a labourer. His journey began from his hometown of Hajira in north Pakistan’s Poonch area. He was willing to do any job and the idea of working in a new country — the UAE — appealed to him. After a 1,200km train ride to Karachi in southern Pakistan, Bashir set off in a “launch” (small wooden boat) to seek his living.

Wrong country

The seas were rough during his five-day voyage (for which he paid 300 Pakistani rupees), but there was another challenge awaiting him on the shores of the Arabian Gulf — Bashir had no passport or any other identity document. He arrived at the seaside area of Dibba Al Bayah, an enclave of Oman right next to Dibba in the UAE. Technically, he had ended up in the wrong country!

Finally in Dubai

“The police met me and after hearing my story, took me in their Land Rover off-roader to the nearby border of Ras Al Khaimah, which had not yet joined the UAE federation. I went to a market there and met some Pakistanis. I told them I wanted to go to Dubai and one man said he would drive me there,” recalled Bashir.

In Dubai, Bashir knew where he had go — Qadir Hotel in Deira, run by a businessman from Khan’s area back home. After a brief complimentary stay, Khan would line up alongside other labourers to find work at construction projects. He was working as a daily wager, a “sand leveller” and carpenter, earning 10 rupees (the currency used back then in the UAE). One day, “a Spanish man called Gordon, from [a multinational marine services firm]” asked Bashir if he would like to be part of a ship crew. Bashir said yes to him.

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After a brief complimentary stay at Qadir Hotel in Deira, Dubai, Bashir would line up alongside other labourers to find work at construction projects. Image Credit: Courtesy: Leanne O'Rourkes

Severe pneumonia

Within six months, Bashir worked his way up from a machine and engine oiler to chief engineer of the ship. Bashir comes from a family of technicians in various fields. After another six months offshore, mostly in Saudi Arabian waters, Bashir got pneumonia during a call to port.

“It was the middle of the summer. We had docked in a Saudi town near Kuwait and I was given an out-pass to fly to Dubai because I was so sick. At Dubai airport, immigration officials told me to rest while they looked into my case, as I had no identity documents. I called my company’s public relations officer who came to the airport and gave a guarantee that my paperwork would be in order soon. We applied with the Pakistani Embassy and got a passport, and then a UAE visa. Back then, it was actually easier and faster,” Khan said.

Captain Bashir

He spent a month recovering in Rashid Hospital, Dubai. After resting for a short while, following his discharge from hospital, Bashir returned to his company, which offered him a new project — working on a ship servicing Dubai’s offshore Fateh Oil Field. After another year in the job, Bashir got a ship captain’s licence and captained a private luxury yacht. He would take guests of the yacht’s owner to islands where they would fish, catch lobsters and enjoy the weekends out at sea.

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Bashir said, in those days, Dh1 would get you a whole chicken or a taxi ride anywhere within Dubai; and Dh2 would take you to Sharjah in a 'sharing taxi', and an entire apartment could be rented in Dubai for just Dh1,000 annually. Image Credit: Courtesy: Leanne O'Rourkes

“I loved working there. My salary was Dh3,000 a month, plus lots of tips from the guests — that was good money in 1978.”

Stepping back from duties

A friend of the yacht’s owner offered Bashir a position at his diving services company, where Bashir worked until recently, when his deteriorating health meant that he had to step back from his duties. Bashir first had open-heart surgery in 1994 and then an angioplasty earlier this year.

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‘I slept peacefully’

“I had a lovely time in the UAE. In my early years here, life was simple and stress-free. We didn’t have shopping malls and mobile phones to keep us up at night. I slept peacefully,” Khan said.

Back then, all of built-up Dubai was just Deira and Bur Dubai on opposite sides of the creek. World Trade Centre was the tallest building in the whole region. Bashir said Dh1 would get you a whole chicken or a taxi ride anywhere within Dubai; and Dh2 would take you to Sharjah in a “sharing taxi”. And rent was only around Dh1,000 a year for an apartment.