Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 7 April 2020

Portrait of a Nation: Family of cobblers are the heart and sole of historic Dubai district

Mohammed Ashiq Ali and his sons have built up their own business empire in the bustling neighbourhood of Al Fahidi

Khaleed Javeed Ali folowed in his father's footsteps to be part of the family cobbling business in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Khaleed Javeed Ali folowed in his father's footsteps to be part of the family cobbling business in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Khaled Javeed Ali’s shop is a splash of colour against the side of a tower block. Dainty leather slippers of every hue, embroidered in golden thread, are sold from this small kiosk at an alley’s edge in Bur Dubai.

Khaled sits on a wide cushion, surveying the street like a king on his throne, and greets regulars by name. He is one of the cobbler brothers of Al Fahidi, the six sons of Mohammed Ashiq Ali.

Al Fareed Shoe Repairing is one of four shoe shops founded by their father, who established himself as the creek’s cobbler of note in the 1990s.

“My father came to Dubai and my father started this work,” said Khaled, 44, who joined the family business in 1994. “All my of family works at this [profession]. Dubai is my business and for 25 years it is my business.”

His father Mr Ali, 68, landed in Dubai in 1989. He had about 30 years experience, having learned to cobble from his father at the age of 10 in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He had some success, and opened a shoe factory but it closed after a dispute with a partner. So, Mr Ali followed his younger brother to Dubai.

He found work as a porter along the creek and shared a bed space in a crowded room with his younger brother, who was a labourer during the construction boom.

Mr Ali had heard of a famed creekside cobbler by the name of Ghulam Haider, who was known to read the personality of clients by the soles of their shoes. A man with soles worn at the centre was intelligent and sure footed but soles worn at the sides were owned by the fickle minded.

Mr Ali found Mr Haider, offered his services for Dh700 a month and assumed Mr Haider’s space on the street.

Khaled followed in 1994 at the age of 19.

It was Khaled who convinced his father to open his own shop across the creek near the Deira gold souq. “We started the first shop in Deira’s old souq, but it didn’t have the business,” said Khaled. “Deira is not a family area, it’s for hotels and wholesale markets.”

They reopened in Bastakiya, as Al Fahidi was known.

Mohammed Ashiq Ali left Pakistan to make a new life for himself and his family in Dubai 30 years ago. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Mohammed Ashiq Ali left Pakistan to make a new life for himself and his family in Dubai 30 years ago. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Business grew. Younger sons followed. The family saved for a grand wedding in Faisalabad where three sons were married at once.

By this time, Mr Ali had so many friends and relations in the Emirates that more than 70 guests flew from Dubai to attend.

“My cousins, brothers, their children, everyone works in Dubai,” said Ashfaq Ali, 37, one of the sons married that day. “All of my uncles worked in Dubai. My family in Dubai is big.”

Khaled nodded. “Our brother Mohammed Arshad worked in London for two years. But he told me, ‘in London I was only one man. So I came back to my family in Dubai’.”

The shops are few hundred metres apart. Khaled’s shop is in the gold and textile district. Ashfaq’s shop is near the Dubai Museum and its 1,000 pairs of bright khussa slippers attract 300 customers a week.

Mr Ali maintains the original shop near the creek, working from a cushion beside a ground-level window. The shop is stacked with boxes of men’s dress shoes from India.

Mr Ali, semi-retired, divides his time between Dubai and Faisalabad.

Ashfaq Ali is part of  thriving family enterprise in the heart of Dubai's historic Al Fahidi district. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ashfaq Ali is part of  thriving family enterprise in the heart of Dubai's historic Al Fahidi district. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Not all of his sons are in the family business but they take turns at the shoe shops, returning to Pakistan for months at a time.

Ashfaq works from 9am until midnight, closing for one hour on Fridays. He never attended school and began work at age eight, stitching women’s clothing.

But all of Mr Ali’s grandchildren are in school. Khaled say the opportunity for their children is the family’s proudest achievement.

“They will not work for shoes,” said Khaled.

Updated: December 5, 2019 05:16 PM

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