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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Portrait of a Nation: the keymaker who came to Abu Dhabi with a circus

Abu Youssef moved to the UAE in the 1970s from Syria accompanied by a performing troupe

Abu Yousef, whose plastic chairs serve as meeting spots, is a fixture of Al Nahyan district. Victor Besa / The National
Abu Yousef, whose plastic chairs serve as meeting spots, is a fixture of Al Nahyan district. Victor Besa / The National

On the corner of Muroor and Defence road, Abdul Ghani Abdul Hammed sits outside his key shop every evening, just as he has for the past 40 years. He puts out a few plastic chairs, a rickety table and a pot of fresh Syrian coffee.

The plastic chairs and hospitality of Abu Yousef, as Abdul Hameed is known, are a fixture of the Al Nahyan neighbourhood.

On street corners in older neighbourhoods, which are scarcely old at all, you can find plastic chair majlises and humble makeshift gardens like those outside the shop of Abu Yousef.

His garden grows mint destined for tea served to customers.

Abu Dhabi is Abu Yousef’s home and you are his guest. Visitors who enter Al Ghazala Electronic Key to escape the midday heat are plied with coffee, like it or not.

Abdulghani Al Humaidan, Abu Yousef and Abdulrehman Nakawa. Victor Besa / The National
Abdulghani Al Humaidan, Abu Yousef and Abdulrehman Nakawa. Victor Besa / The National

The Syrian key-maker came to the UAE with a troupe of trapeze artists, jugglers and clowns on a visa as a circus worker. He had no onstage experience but had trained as a electrician for two years at a technical college in Syria and landed a job managing the stage lights and spotlights under the big top.

“The circus was like a small city,” says Abu Yousef, who is now 60. “I came here and I didn’t know whether I would leave tomorrow or after 10 years. Sand, sand was all that this was and the geography was different but the customs were the same.”

The circus was his ticket to the emirate and within a few months he and his friends opened an auto-electrical shop on Defence Road, now renamed Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed the First Street. They called it Al Ghazala after their hometown.

“I came for business and work,” says Abu Yousef. “The day was May 15. I was a little scared and yes, of course, a little excited. It was hot. After all, it was May 15. It was difficult but there friends took us to a home, and they took care of us and they did everything for us.”

Abu Yousef lived above the shop. Defence Road was spacious and wide, with ample parking and would soon be known for its auto-electricians works. By the 1980s, the country’s motoring and customisation culture had begun to emerge.

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Read more from Portraits of a Nation:

The palace builder of Abu Dhabi

The barber of Black House Saloon and the bag of Dh200,000

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Mobile phones in cars were the must-have accessory in the mid-eighties.

“I started in 1986 with mobiles,” says Khaled Al Ma’arawi, a friend of Abu Yousef in his mid-50s, who has worked at a neighbouring shop for the past 30 years. “The first mobile was National Japan, and Panasonic: 11 kg. Some people wanted three mobiles in one car and they did it,”

It took two hours to fix a mobile in the car, at a cost of Dh11,000.

Abu Yousef boosted his reputation the following year for creating a remote-control that started the engine of his 1982 Jaguar 6x. “Even in China they didn’t have this,” he says.

He planned to manufacture remotes in South Korea but plans fell through. “No person is without challenges in their life,” he says.

He began exclusively making keys after the municipality banned auto-repair shops from operating on the island. He has been based out of his current building across from the mint-green central bus station since 2012. It is just 100 metres from where his 1978 shop stood.

His family followed him to Abu Dhabi. He married in 1988 and his four children were born at the Corniche hospital. Three of them still live in Abu Dhabi, as do five of his siblings and several nieces and nephews. Many now run their own auto-electrical or keymaking shops. Leaving Abu Dhabi is unthinkable.

“It’s my life,” said Bu Yusef. “I live here, everything is here. My children and all my family are here.”

His plastic chairs are a remnant of old Abu Dhabi for men like Mr Al Ma’arawi.

“You know all the people were happy because we were together, like the same family,” said Mr Al Ma’arawi. “When you said hello, it meant ‘come to me’. All the people liked to help each other. Now when you say hello to your brother, he says, ‘no, go far away from me’. All the world is like this now. Life is very difficult now.”

Despite unlikely beginnings, the locksmith's shop is a place where hello still means welcome.