x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Going back to my Deira roots proved to be a more heartening experience than I would have expected.

I chanced upon my old neighbourhood in Deira the other day – the one where I used to live when I first moved to Dubai about 13 years ago. What memories that accidental encounter brought back: the building I lived in as I struggled to come to terms with my new home. The parking spot where (after many tear-inducing failed attempts) I eventually learnt how to reverse park. The Iranian grocery with the extremely grumpy old man at the checkout who always forced me to question my decision to spend my money in his shop. The hypermarket that built the foundation of my current wardrobe.

Amid all the nostalgia, I drove by the restaurant that used to be my first choice for take-away all those years ago when I was a newly imported freelancer with hardly any cash, when I was still in that twilight zone where dirhams didn’t register as a reality and all price tags underwent a mental currency conversion. With a conversion rate of 18 Pakistani rupees to the dirham, most price tags were aneurysm-inducing. Shawarmas were cheap and cheerful, but there are only so many you can eat.

It was that little shop around the corner that became my saving grace: Adaab Restaurant. As I drove by and caught a glimpse of it, the mouthwatering memories of the delicious chicken fried rice came rushing back. What I loved even more than the dish itself was the fact that the restaurant allowed you to buy a half portion. It was just the right amount for one person, and at Dh5, perfectly priced for a struggling expat. So, even though I had already had lunch, I parked my car and headed to Adaab to grab a bite of my usual order from 13 years ago.

The order was taken by a sweet, old gentleman at the counter and we got to chatting while I waited. It turned out that he, Mr Shaam, has been the owner of Adaab for decades. He said he has lived in the same building and was behind the counter most afternoons.

“I am so bad with names and faces,” I confessed, visibly embarrassed as I struggled to recall if I had ever seen him before.

“It’s OK, “he said. ”I am sure your talents lie elsewhere.”

He looked at me expectantly for a while before I realised his statement wasn’t rhetorical and he actually wanted me to tell him what I had to show for my lack of memory. I write for a newspaper, I told him.

“Oh, that’s so nice,” he said and his whole face lit up in a smile. “We used to have a really nice lady come in and order from us. She also used to write for newspapers. Her sons used to rent a lot of videos from our video shop next door. Many years ago. Maybe 20.”

This sounded vaguely familiar. I asked Mr Shaam if he recalled where this family used to live.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “But we had a lot of customers from the old Grand Stores building across the road. They might have lived there.”

“Are you talking about Miss Roohi?” I inquired.

“Yes, yes of course!” beamed Mr Shaam. “You know her?”

In 13 years, I had forgotten if I had ever even seen Mr Shaam, but he still remembers customers from 20 years ago. The lady who used to write for the paper is now my mother-in-law; the younger of her two sons, who used to rent videos, my husband. What an insanely small place this gigantic planet really is.

• Adaab restaurant is located just off Maktoum Street in Deira. They still sell half a serving of chicken fried rice, now priced at Dh9. Call 04 228 9005

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai