When Mohammed Imtiaz was a teenage apprentice tailor in 1960s Karachi, styles were different.
“People wore loose clothes, like Charlie Chaplin, very baggy. It was easy to cut the fabric,” he says.
“But now everybody wants fitted clothes. It is harder.”
Mr Imtiaz, 72, remembers the now-troubled Karachi as a peaceful city where, under the watchful eye of a master tailor at Manchester House Tailors, he first learnt how to stitch jackets, shirts and trousers.
“If you wanted to go out at night, it was no problem and no one disturbed you. But now it is different.”
More than 50 years on, Mr Imtiaz reflects on these Karachi days from his tailoring shop in Abu Dhabi’s old town.
From Gujranwala in Pakistan, he arrived to the Emirates in 1976 and has run his own shop just off Hamdan Street since the early 1990s.
His story is one of hard choices, emigration and personal sacrifice set against the backdrop of war. In many ways, his story mirrors the experiences of so many expatriates who have moved to the UAE at huge personal sacrifice.
It was his aunt who advised him to be a tailor because it was a good profession. And after training in Karachi, he moved to Dhaka, a city with a long history of textile production. But war clouds were on the horizon. Pakistan and what was then East Pakistan clashed in 1971 in a conflict that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Mr Imtiaz left for Lahore, where he spent four years tailoring, before moving to Abu Dhabi in 1976 to work at his father’s clothing business in the old souq that sat where the World Trade Centre is today.
“I did not want to come but my father insisted. ‘You will get a good salary, a good house, a good everything’,” he says. “I did not want to because I was fed up with travelling. But he insisted and I respected him.”
He didn’t speak English or Arabic when he landed, only Urdu.
“You saw the desert there,” he says, pointing out his window at the tower blocks. “Where Marina Mall is now, there was sea. But I came here and I’m still here. I earned my own money.”
His father left a few years after he arrived and Mr Imtiaz worked with another tailor – Mohammed Rasheed – before establishing his own. That old name still hangs outside his shop – it takes too much work to change it, he says. Standing at his workbench, Mr Imtiaz explains how a shirt is made. He takes the measurements and selects fabric from the dozens of rolls neatly folded into the shop’s shelves. Taking a 30-centimetre pair of scissors, he cuts the cloth by hand, making the sleeves, front, back, cuff and collar separately. These are then put together by his four workers who iron, stitch and fold. The window display shows his suits, while on the wall hang 10 examples of collar styles.
When he arrived in the UAE, there were no large shops selling clothes, such as Lulu, KM Trading or Carrefour. “They are now bringing clothes in cheaply.” But business is still good and he has many repeat customers. “My work is the difference,” he says. Mr Imtiaz makes about 30 suits a month and does alterations. For as little as Dh550, you can have your own handmade suit.
Dozens of new buildings have replaced the sand that he first encountered, but life in Abu Dhabi’s old town continues at its own rhythm. Workers stop for karak chai at the small cafes, people bring their shoes to a cobbler beside Mr Imtiaz’s shop and families shop for fruit in the small greengrocers. In the mornings, he reads the newspaper, sips tea and often listens to music from an old cassette and radio stereo. Sometimes he stands outside. People stop to talk and he also goes to the nearby mosque to pray.
“There is peace here. Look my glass shop front. In other countries you have to pull the shutter down and close the shop – one lock, two locks, three locks, four locks. But here there is no need.”
His wife died and his four daughters are settled back in Pakistan, but he has no plans to stop tailoring. He has given more than 40 years of his life to the UAE.
“That means it’s good, if it’s not good, how did I stay here?” he says, with a wistful smile.