Watch fixer of Hamdan Street has time on his hands

A Pakistani watch repairer who has worked in the same Abu Dhabi neighbourhood for the past four decades says he has no plans to retire, writes Anna Zacharias

Niaz Ahmed, a watch repairman, works in his tiny store on the ground floor of an apartment tower on Hamdan Street. Ahmed arrived from Karachi, Pakistan, by ship about 40 years ago to work as a watch repairer in the old souq and is one of the few remaining vendors from the original market, which was destroyed in a fire in 2003. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Time stands still for the clock fixer of Hamdan Street.

Niaz Ahmed sees the world from a seat in his watch and clock repair shop, surrounded by a display of broken clocks. These are the clocks Ahmed could not fix and he hangs them on the walls of his shop and the stone of the building like motivational decoration. Each is stopped at a different time.

Ahmed and his shop are what remains of an old Abu Dhabi souq that was gutted by a fire in 2003. It stood on the current location of the Central Market mall, a few hundred metres from Ahmed's current shop.

When the souq closed, a member of the Al Otaiba family generously allowed him to open a stand at the bottom of his residential tower block, free of charge.

"When I went to rent this shop from him, I told him I have five daughters and one son," recalls Ahmed. "He told me: 'I will not take any rent from you. Just when you go to the mosque, pray for me'."

Sarfraz Watches Repairs is built onto the corner of the high rise, stuck like an old barnacle to the new building. It is the same size as Ahmed's original shop, no bigger than a cupboard. Customers are drawn in by the fluorescent tube lights and Ahmed's smile.

A man with soft brown eyes, white stubble and youthful energy, Ahmed has all the trademarks of a successful souq trader. He is charming, warm and sincere, a socialite and matchmaker, full of praise for the country where he lives and compliments for his customers.

Like any worthy Gulf merchant, Ahmed speaks a language that trips between English and Arabic, peppered with Urdu.

"Whatever my truth is, that's what I'm telling you now," he says in Urdu, before he slips into souq pidgin. "Ana old man lakin heart young. I'm an old man but my heart is young."

"He's a romantic," says Faisal Abbasi, 29, one of Ahmed's many friends.

The shop walls are decorated with packets of watch batteries, the shelves are full of leather watch straps and a counter contains his tools: tweezers, a monocle, nail clippers and a pair of Vise-Grips. At times, Ahmed's words are smoother than his repairs.

A sign in his shop reads, in Arabic and English: "Allah is able to do all things."

So too, are the people of Abu Dhabi, says Ahmed.

"When I came, it was only sand," he says. "My age was 20. Or 25. Or 22. Like this. Now I'm 61, 62."

Born in Kashmir, Ahmed followed his cousin to the Gulf from Pakistan in 1976. By the time he arrived in the UAE, Ahmed was already an experienced watch fixer, having left school after the eighth grade to support his family.

"We like to have mountains and scenery, but when you feel hunger, you go to work," he says.

The journey took three days by ship from Karachi. Three days of seasickness.

"I was fearful, I didn't know what kind of country would be here," he says. "When I landed from the ship, I saw people wearing kanduras and I said to myself: 'This country is full of wealth. I'm lucky to be here'. When I landed from the ship I said: 'I'm young and there's wealth and it's time to capitalise on my youth and I worked hard'.

"When I came here, I was afraid. I did not know what kind of people lived here, but people treated me well and I didn't feel I was outside my country."

The souq was visited by Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the country's founding president, on the day of his arrival.

"Sheikh Zayed opened it five minutes before I arrived. When I came here, the people told me the Ruler himself had been there for an opening. They raised the slogans for Sheikh Zayed to live long."

"He was raheem [merciful], he was a joy. Pakistan's men love this man."

The souq meant that Ahmed did not have the chance to be lonely.

"There were things from all over the world and people from all over the world went there. There were gold shops and clock shops and watch repair shops and cloth shops and electronics.

"People were actually friends, but there was competition. But people get what their destiny owes."

Many felt they lost a second home when the souq closed.

"Most people, when they heard the news that this market was going to be removed, they had a heart attack. Some people went to Europe, if they had the money. If they didn't have the money to go to Europe, they went home." Ahmed stayed and opened a shop he named for his son, Sarfraz.

It has become a family business. Ahmed does night shifts. Morning shifts are covered by his nephew and son-in-law Shuaib, a curly haired man with soft giggles who made leather jackets in Pakistan. The morning shift ends when the sun rises over the city's skyscrapers and it becomes too hot to continue.

"Here it is all buildings," says Ahmed.

Business remains strong, buoyed by a wealthy culture in which watches are popular gifts. He averages 15 to 20 customers a day, with a daily income of Dh100 to Dh150.

Between jobs, Ahmed listens to BBC Radio. He thinks about "the wife or about God" and is "looking at the new world" of Hamdan Street's traffic and gold shops.

Friends visit between prayers for tea, for laughter, for news.

"Most of the people are his friends, they come and talk to him, when they finish their duty they come to talk," says Abbasi. "Even people who are shy, they become his friends. He has a radio, he can listen to all the news of the world, he reads the papers, he's a very up-to-date person."

Ahmed interrupts: "If I get something from the government, I'd be happy to retire."

Until then, Ahmed has no plans to retire. He has five daughters to support.

"I have to get them married," he says.

In truth, it is not simply financial constraints that keep him from retirement. "So much security has been provided for me," he says. "I pray may God show mercy to Sheikh Zayed and his sons and I pray that they will keep doing what they are doing. Wherever I go, I have been treated very nicely.

"I meet people from almost all the countries. They treat people well, with respect and honour and that's why I don't miss Pakistan.""

Ahmed proudly proclaims he is "made in Pakistan", but his home is Hamdan Street.