From Iran to Dubai, the remarkable story of Special Ostadi

Mohammed Al Ansari is a well-known and popular figure in Dubai. The 82-year-old left Iran in 1941 and settled in the city where, 35 years ago, he opened a restaurant serving traditional dishes from his homeland.

In 1941, with the Second World War raging in Europe, a dhow carrying more than 40 passengers left an Iranian port to make its way across the Arabian Gulf.
The journey took more than seven days, stopping at Abu Musa Island before reaching its final destination, Dubai. Among the passengers was Mohammed Al Ansari, 9, who along with his uncle was on his way to start a new life.
Mohammed's father had left Gerash, a small town in the south of Iran, a few years earlier, and set up a grocery store and a bakery in Bur Dubai.
He had sent a letter to his family asking them to send help, which is where Mohammed comes into the story.
"We were starving. We barely had any food," recalls Mohammed, now a sprightly 82. "We heard that the English would give out rations of food and that there were opportunities for merchants in the place known as Dubai.
"People went to Dubai for a chance at a new life. They still do."
His story in some ways is the story of Dubai, where he dabbled in various businesses down the years, until finally settling on a restaurant that has become like a second home run by the family.
Wearing a chequered shirt, and with long white hair and a moustache, Mohammed is a relic of the past that almost everyone in Bur Dubai knows or has at least heard of.
The father of four boys and three girls is always at Special Ostadi, his small restaurant on the very crammed Al Musallah road.
Mohammed likes to sit next to the glass front doors, greeting customers as they come in with a big smile and a "Salam alakum". He usually knows all their names, and if he doesn't, he finds out.
He is surrounded by five phones, each with its own number, and two plates, one full of change and the other filled to the brim with complimentary dates.
Two birds, a canary and an Iranian bird he calls a "torgha", sing their hearts out from small cages at the back of the restaurant.
"They are saying 'Welcome, welcome'," he says
Opened in 1978 and named after a childhood friend with the last name Ostadi, the restaurant is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. It serves mainly south Iranian cuisine of meat, chicken dishes and kebabs.
"I love seeing my customers grow older with me," Mohammed says. "Customers came with their babies, and now these babies are coming here with their own babies. I feel like everyone's grandfather."
Ahmed and Ali, two young Emiratis arriving for lunch, say they first came to the restaurant with their parents and continued coming back as adults.
"It is not about the food, but about the atmosphere and cosiness of the place," says Ahmed, 23, who drives in from Jumeirah.
Even though parking is a big issue in Bur Dubai, it doesn't deter him or many others from coming to the restaurant.
"It is like going over to a relative's house, not to a restaurant," Ahmed says.
This is exactly how Mohammed had envisioned it decades ago.
"My father likes to keep it personal," says his son Majid, 46. "He also believes in hard work. He never spoiled us. He taught us patience and survival. If something didn't work, he would find something new to do."
Wars and regional events, such as the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s, had direct impact on small businesses in the area. The Al Ansari family business of selling and trading goods, including perfumes, household goods and cigarettes crashed with the fighting. So they instead focused on the restaurant.
"I have so many stories to tell," says Mohammed, and jokingly adds that he is working on his memoirs.
As a child, he says, he would walk around in the early morning selling freshly baked flat bread stacked on his head.
He would yell out "Khameer Al Sakh" (hot bread), then go back to his father's store and bring out canisters of kerosene and boxes of matches in a sack, and set out to sell them.
After making his rounds, he would return to pick up eggs, bought by his father from elderly Emirati women who kept chickens around their arish, palm-frond homes.
"The total value of everything in my father's store back then would be valued at 100 rupees. We lived simply on very basic food," says Mohammed, who admits he did not taste chocolate or potatoes until he was in his 30s.
Water would be carried on donkeys from wells, inside leather sacks or tea-biscuit cans, and people travelled on foot or hired a donkey or camel. The only cars in the area usually belonged to the Ruler and the British army.
"I remember the driver of Sheikh Saeed," Mohammed says. "His name was Ibrahim Lanjawi, an Iranian who drove around the sheikh's Chevrolet. He had funny stories to share."
But those formative years of Dubai were the hardest on the women.
"We would hear about how a neighbour's wife died during childbirth," he says. "All of us would mourn together as we were a close-knit community of different nationalities."
Mohammed got married 14 years after settling in Dubai, living with his family in Bur Dubai on the site of what since 1976 has been the Astoria Hotel.
"Before, you could buy land here in any location. We owned a piece of land in Bur Dubai but have long sold it," says Mohammed, who now lives in Al Quoz.
Some of his story, and that of the restaurant, is captured in row after row of photographs, old and new, covering the entire premises.
Along the pillars and walls are pictures of many of the old customers and some famous regulars, such as the Bollywood actor Salman Khan. There are also hundreds of currencies from around the world tucked safely under the glass on the dining tables.
"When people come here I want them to do more than just eat," Mohammed says. "I want them to reflect back on history and on the world by looking at the currencies and analysing them as they eat."
The restaurant has collected more than 5,000 notes, some from tourists.
He points to the various Indian rupees and explains that the currency was one of the most important because trade between the Trucial States and India was already strong.
He has the Gulf rupee, which replaced the Indian rupee in 1959 as the official currency in the UAE and other Arabian Gulf countries, then shows the currencies used after the devaluation of the Gulf rupee in 1966.
"Abu Dhabi used the Bahraini dinar," Mohammed says. "Dubai and the rest of the emirates used the Qatar and Dubai rial.
The dirham replaced them in 1973.
Besides the notes and other mementos on display in the restaurant, it is his personal memories he cherishes the most.
"I am very lucky," he says. "I have seen what people only see in photographs and old paintings."
He has met four Rulers of Dubai: Sheikh Saeed (1912-1958), Sheikh Rashid (1958-1990), Sheikh Maktoum (1990-2006) and the current Ruler and Vice President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.
He ate as a child at the majlis of Sheikha Hessa, the mother of Sheikh Rashid, who regularly invited residents over for meals.
As an adult, Mohammed would join other guests in visiting the ruling Sheikh's home for Eid and special occasions.
"We were so few then, we all knew each other and we were all one big family," he says. "The only houses belonged to the sheikhs, and some very rich merchants, and so they would always open their homes to everyone else.
"It didn't matter where you were from, you were always welcome at their homes."
While the surroundings may have changed and everything has become "too much" he says, from the traffic to the bustle, Mohammed truly enjoys his life.
He records every transaction at the restaurant with a pen in a notebook, and enjoys tinkering with his old radio.
While he had spent most of his life in the UAE, he goes back to Iran every month to visit family and friends.
"I have two homes, UAE and Iran," he says. "Both countries have changed a lot but I haven't. I am still the same, but maybe a little bit older.
"I never regretted going on that dhow as a child. It was the beginning of my adventures."