x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Big hello from little man with a huge following

Being only 3ft 10in tall has never held back Alam Rehman, a much-feted restaurant greeter in Abu Dhabi.

Alam Rehmen at work on the door of Al Ibrahimi.
Alam Rehmen at work on the door of Al Ibrahimi. "Everybody is happy when they see me, all different nationalities," he says.

ABU DHABI // Alam Rehman left home when he was 20, swapping his village in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan for the bustling city of Rawalpindi in search of work.

"When I was younger, my father had retired from his army job and we were living on his pension," Mr Rehman said. "He had taken me to 'Pindi once before just to visit. When I got back home, my mum didn't want me to go back there. But I got on three buses to get there and I was confident I was going to get a job. After 12 days, that is what happened and I started working in the Wings bakery, greeting people."

Seven years later, the 3ft 10in Pathan took another giant step - this time leaving Rawalpindi for Abu Dhabi. Mr Rehman arrived in the capital more than three years ago. Like thousands of other Pathans, he saw a better future for himself, and his family, in the Emirates. He left behind his parents and seven younger siblings, who now live in Rawalpindi themselves, to support them from afar. Mr Rehman, 30, works as a greeter at the popular Pakistani restaurant Al Ibrahimi on Electra Street. The 25-year-old restaurant has almost doubled in size since its launch.

Among Pakistanis and fans of south Asian food, Mr Rehman has become something of a celebrity. "I work seven days a week," he said. "Even if they give me a day off, I don't take it. I never get bored because I am very grateful for this job." From 1pm until 4pm, and then from 7pm until midnight, Mr Rehman can be found at the door, dressed in one of his four tailor-made outfits for work - an elaborate salwar kameez and turban.

He greets at least 300 diners each day more at the weekend opening the door and chatting with diners. "Pakistanis greet me with a 'Salam'. Everybody is happy when they see me, all different nationalities - Europeans, Indians, Bengalis they are all happy and very respectful. Some like to take photos with me too." The tradition of greeters in regional costume is common in South Asia. "I have seen this style of greeter in Pakistan, especially in big hotels," said Mr Rehman. "The hat and the salwar kameez is very Pakistani. Little and big people do it, it's part of our culture."

The job was offered to Mr Rehman when he was living in Pakistan. "The owner of this place had a friend in my village," he said. "They said they needed someone to come and work here. I had some restaurant experience, and when these guys offered me the position I did some research to find out more about them." He has not looked back, and has not been back home since his arrival. "My parents were worried about me coming here, but they were not angry. I have become more worldy and astute since I first left home."

Mr Rehman's salary jumped more than Dh2,000 (US$540) a month when he moved here. He makes around Dh3,000 a month, including tips, and sends most of it back to his family, enough for them to buy land in Rawalpindi, on which they are building a home. The money also supports his parents, pays for his siblings' education and is being saved for their weddings. Mr Rehman's oldest sister, Amna, 28, is also small. Maryam, 24, and Zaida Maryam, 22, are both studying, and Alia, the youngest girl, is 20. His brother Mohammed Ilyas is 26 and the youngest child is Shaad Maan, 14.

With so many to provide for, Mr Rehman appreciates tips. "Among the tippers, Pakistanis give the most. There are lots of big Pakistani businessmen here who are very generous." Mr Rehman lives in a room above the restaurant with six other staff members. In his spare time, he prays and sometimes visits the Corniche with friends. He is reluctant to part with his savings on frivolous outings and eats only at the restaurant.

"With money, I don't like to betray my family and spend it all on myself. I don't fritter it away. Whatever I earn, I send back to them." He dreams of working in Europe. "But I will only work in a halal environment. I like the respect I get here and when I was working in Pakistan. Everyone speaks to me very nicely." Apart from helping his sisters and brothers to realise their dreams he has only one major ambition for himself - to find a partner.

"This is the only problem that comes with my height," he said. "I might not find a lady to marry." In the meantime, Mr Rehman intends to continue dedicating his life to his family. His parents hold him in high regard, he added, and often look to him for advice in choosing his siblings' spouses or helping with their careers. "Because I didn't study myself, I feel I should be encouraging and more forceful to my brothers and sisters," he said.

"I don't want them to support me, but I want them to make something of their lives. "They are scared of me, in a good way. They respect me like a father." @Email:asafdar@thenational.ae