After four gruelling nights as a stowaway escaping the conflict in Palestine, 17-year-old Radwan Al Tamimi landed in a place where he would get a new chance and a new title – Bu Tafish.
“Sheikh Zayed named me Bu Tafish,” says Mr Al Tamimi proudly.
“I prefer people calling me by that name. Do you know why he gave me that title? It’s a long, long gone history.”
Now 70, Bu Tafish admits that his memory is not what it was. But one event he recalls vividly is his first encounter with the founding father, Sheikh Zayed.
In the dining room of the restaurant on Abu Dhabi’s Hamdan Street that carries his name, Bu Tafish pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts about his struggle to flee Palestine in the early 1950s and how he survived in a new land.
“I, along with other migrants, managed to escape Palestine,” he says. “We met another 200 immigrants in Iraq and resumed the journey.”
In those four harsh days and nights on a ship, all they could see was the sky and the ship, overloaded with people and cargo. “That’s it,” he recalls.
The journey seemed a matter of life and death. At the end of it, the teenager found himself in what seemed like a barren land, called Dubai.
There were only a few Gulf Arabs living in the city in those days. “The majority consisted of Iranians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, and Indians,” he says.
Eventually he found a job as a delivery boy in a restaurant called Al Oumara. Shortly afterwards, he applied to work in Abu Dhabi.
A Jordanian businessman was recruiting people for his new restaurants in the capital. Back then, people needed a visa to work there, and Bu Tafish says he is a man who abides by the law.
Finally, his dream of working in the capital came true.
“I worked in Al Quds restaurant for another short term,” he says.
“Then I thought of opening a small kiosk on the outskirts of the Corniche.”
Little did he know that the mobile kiosk, attached to a tricyle, would be the starting point of a new journey.
Located in what was then called the Al Kaser area, next to a roundabout on what is today the site of the Etihad Towers complex, he furnished the enterprise with a few chairs and sun umbrellas.
“I used to sell coffee, tea, egg and jam sandwiches.”
The Corniche was undergoing major construction at the time and so one day, Sheikh Zayed passed through the area and saw the young man selling from his kiosk.
“He stopped the vehicle and hopped out,” says Bu Tafish. People flocked to greet the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Zayed shook hands with everyone. He was particularly inquisitive about the small business run by Bu Tafish.
“When His Highness approached to shake hands with me, I got really scared” he says with a laugh, admitting that he had begun the kiosk without seeking permission from the authorities.
At first he feared being reprimanded for running an illegal enterprise, but those first few moments with Sheikh Zayed were the start of a new chapter.
“Sheikh Zayed asked about my background,” he says.
He told Sheikh Zayed that he was Palestinian and “tafish”, someone who had grown so tired of problems in his homeland that he decided to leave.
His repeated use of the word inspired Sheikh Zayed to give him the nickname.
“Then the late father began to praise Palestine and spoke highly of it and its people. You know, the beautiful gems that fell from his mouth should have been written in gold letters. He was the epitome of humbleness.”
Sheikh Zayed admired the idea of the kiosk, but thought the young man should think bigger.
“He advised me to expand the food chain and do something exceptional for Abu Dhabi,” he says. “I promised to bring his vision to actuality.”
Sheikh Zayed helped him with finances for the expansion, and gave him three days to turn his small business into something bigger. He ordered a licence to provide water and electricity to the young entrepreneur.
“Before departing, Sheikh Zayed told me he would visit me after three days to see if I had used the money wisely,” he says.
“I kept the promise and began the expansion gradually with the help of other people.”
Although three days was not quite long enough to fulfil such a big dream, Bu Tafish did win the admiration of Sheikh Zayed.
“I longed to establish a floating boat restaurant, which was popular in Egypt and Lebanon.” he says. “I always asked God to help me start something similar.”
In Jordan, he knew that floating restaurants did well on the Red Sea coast at Aqaba, attracting tourists. “I wanted to start a similar concept in Abu Dhabi.”
The first restaurant he opened was called Sindbad the Sailor, in Al Bateen. Later, he changed the name to the Flower Beach Restaurant and then to Golden Beach.
None of the names were particularly popular, leaving him with another challenge to overcome. After two years, the owner of the building told him that it was time to pack up.
“I welcomed the news and did what I was ordered to do,” he says.
In 1968, he decided to try again, calling his new restaurant Bu Tafish, the name he was known by. It was a turning point.
The authentic seafood dishes and the ambience attracted many leaders to his place, including Sheikh Zayed, a regular customer.
The Ruler also gave him the secret ingredients to perfect a popular Iraqi grilled fish dish called Masqoof.
“Sheikh Zayed was not only an expert on food, he was an expert on life,” he says.
“Sheikh Zayed visited us frequently. He was a simple man. His favourite appetiser was Palestinian-style lemon juice. He would eat modestly and talk to people in a friendly manner.”
On entering the Hamdan Street branch of Bu Tafish, the city’s oldest seafood restaurant, diners get a feel of eating in a floating boat surrounded by maritime trappings.
Today there are five branches of Bu Tafish, including the recently opened branch in the newly revitalised Al Bateen Marina.
“You see Allah’s power,” he says. “I was ousted in Al Bateen decades ago. Look what Allah compensated me with. Bu Tafish is back to its birthplace.”
“Praise Allah. I live a peaceful life. Whatever I have today is from Allah followed by my parents’ prayers and Sheikh Zayed’s support.”
Asked about his success, he whispers: “Do you know I failed four times in Grade 1? Like people say in Palestine, something good came out of me.”