x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A smoking success

How he did it It smells like dried tea in Abu Muhammad's Smoke Accessories, but the aroma actually stems from the tobacco Asghar Fedai, 65, smokes and sells.

All in the family: employees of Abu Muhammad's Smoke Shop in Abu Dhabi. Jeff Topping / The National

It smells like dried tea in Abu Muhammad's Smoke Accessories. But the aroma actually stems from tobacco. The musky odour hits one's nostrils immediately upon walking in the door. Asghar Fedai, the owner and founder of the store, is better known as Abu Muhammad, which translated from Arabic means "The father of Muhammad". It is also the name of his store, which he claims is the first smoke shop in Abu Dhabi and, naturally, the best.

"Forty-five years ago I came to Dubai for business. I moved to Abu Dhabi two years later and started my shop," Mr Fedai, 65, says during a recent visit from his hometown of Shiraz, Iran. "All worked out well, hamdulillah." Mr Fedai is the father of most of the store's employees. He moved back to Iran a couple of years ago but was in town for his yearly medical examination. Currently, two teams of 12 men each, all family and all related, rotate in eight-month cycles between Iran and Abu Dhabi to work in the shop.

The store is full of gold-plated shishas arranged on numerous shelves, Arabian dancing rifles on racks against the wall and store-made pipes displayed under the worn counter. Yellowed and tobacco-stained family photos decorate the top of the counter, images of staggering horses, dukha fields, falcons, motorcycles and, of course, the men of the extended Fedai family. Mr Fedai is a distinguished man of few words. His eyes smile when he speaks, revealing a genuine love for the products he sells. Slowly, he tucks some tobacco in his weathered pipe and lights it with a purple lighter. "I have smoked dukha since I was a boy," he says. "And will smoke when I'm an old man." He came to Dubai when he was 18 to work in the furniture-making trade, and soon made his move to retail. He had visited Abu Dhabi on occasion, and when he found that he liked it used his savings to set up shop in the future capital. Back then, Abu Dhabi was a small village, and the previously flourishing pearl-diving industry had begun its severe decline. In 1963, when Mr Fedai arrived in the capital, the first big oil shipment from the onshore field at Bab had just been exported from Jebel Dhanna, the airport was a meagre building without windows next to a strip of sand, there was one main paved road in the entire city and cars had only just been introduced. Drinking water still had to be poured into cans and loaded onto donkeys to be taken back to the Barasti houses, which were slowly being replaced by mud brick and cement dwellings. Starting a business in those days didn't take a lot of paperwork, Mr Fedai said. "Mind you, the United Arab Emirates weren't even united," he laughs, shaking his head gently. "You want more tea?" Once he had opened his grocery store at the Old Market on Khalifa Street he briefly went back to Iran to get married. His family, including the five boys and two girls of his own, would become the driving force behind his success. "I remember being five years old and standing outside trying to get people in the shop for my father," Mr Fedai's second to last son, Daniel, 24, says. "What do you like? We have it. Come in! We have pistachio, cashew, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron. What you want?"

Asghar Azadegan inspects a madwakh in the basement of the shop.

The majority of Mr Fedai's merchandise in those early days were grocery items: nuts, sweets, spices and rice. But he also sold dukha and madwakh - tobacco and pipes. Since Mr Fedai is a dedicated smoker himself, he always made sure he had quality items for smokers, and people started to come to his store based for his wide variety of tobacco and smoking implements. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan even visited the store and would sit cross-legged on the rugs outside, enjoying the strongest kind of tobacco with fellow dukha smokers while discussing the news of the day. Today, many Abu Dhabi sheikhs are regular customers, although now their drivers do the shopping for them. The sale of dukha products at the shop has increased noticeably over the past several years. "Don't know numbers," Mr Fedai's third son, Muhammad, 32, said. "But I think there's about 15 to 20 smoke shops in Abu Dhabi now and they all do well." Abu Muhammad's tobacco is grown and dried on farms in Hatta, Oman, which the family rents from local farmers for about Dh80,000 to Dh120,000 for four months, depending on the plot. The eldest brother, Ahmed Fedai, 38, is in charge of overseeing the farms and lives for part of the year in Oman. The plants take around four months to grow and are cut and dried on the farms. Finally, the dukha is shipped to Abu Dhabi and stored in the shop's basement. The tobacco has a wide range of tastes, resulting from different varieties of plants, including flavours such as K2, Rashid 1 and Fares. The leaves are classified by strength, from type one to five. Number one is the strongest, and is known as "har", which translates to "very strong", from the Farsi. Its leaves come from the top of the plant, and their colour is very green. Five, "gahfif", is the weakest, but most people decide on the medium strength, known as "wasad". A 60ml vial of dukha sells for between Dh4 and Dh25, depending on strength, quality and exclusivity. A 500ml bottle costs between Dh25 and Dh250. And the pipes, the madwakh, start from as little as Dh2 and go to Dh100, depending on the materials used. You can buy pipes made of Iranian, African and Omani wood and ivory, plastic and aluminium. All pipes are made by hand in the basement by cousins Mohammad Gholami, 21, and Ali Asghar, 26. Rashid al Mansouri, 22, a student at the University of Portland in Oregan, is a regular customer when he visits his parents and is not in the US. He is in the shop hoping to sample a new flavour and asks Yonas Karima, 34, Muhammad Fedai's brother-in-law, to fill his pipe with Falahia. Mr Karima swiftly opens a big tin pot that is sitting on the floor behind the counter and presents him with a full madwakh. "This is not as strong as the one you had last time," Mr Karima says, grinning. "Maybe you'll like this better." Mr al Mansouri takes a long, deep breath and exhales a plume of smoke. "Don't like this one so much, too little light in the head," he says. "Give me that stronger one again." The store is open every day from 6.30am to 1am, but it doesn't get terribly busy until five o'clock in the afternoon. That's when shiny 4x4's and dust-covered BMWs start to arrive in the crowded street parallel to Defense Road, opposite Al Wahda Mall. A cosmopolitan mix of smartly dressed businessmen, traditional Asians and Emirati youngsters in crisp national dress topped off with leather coats make their way to the well-lit store. The long opening hours might be a blessing for dukha-addicted customers, but they are a curse for employees. It's a good thing all 12 of them are are related, dedicated and live in the same apartment in the building next door. "We work eight months with 12 of us," Daniel says. "Then we go back to Iran for eight months and more family comes here to take care of the shop." Daniel is pleased with the life his father has built for his family. "Eight months work, eight months vacation, who can say that nowadays?" It's a lucrative business, so it's well worth the long hours, the Fedai brothers say. "Dukha?" Daniel says. "It's better than petrol." Daniel's older brother Muhammad, the self-appointed cashier, urges his brothers not to reveal how much they make. "Iranians have a nose for business and before you know it they will come here and start shops all over the city. That will be a problem." While Muhammad makes his case, Ahmad Al Mansouri, 25, another regular customer, walks in with two of his friends. He laughed. "No need to worry," he said. "Abu Muhammad has the best dukha in town." lhecke@thenational.ae