Dubai Landing...

The writer, who set up a flourishing business in Dubai decades ago, when it was a small trading outpost, narrates his life in Beirut—which was the midst of a sectarian war. The first of a series that would describe what it meant to do busines in Miidle East as it was evolving into a major business centre, even as India was in the grip of licence-control raj.

The flight to Dubai was full.  Practically all the seats were taken by fresh employee immigrants clutching a handbag with passports and all anxious to make it big in the land of plenty, dreaming to make a couple of lakhs of rupees only to return back home and settle down.  Almost all of them were from the South, and generally speaking to and comforting each other in Malayalam.
This was my third trip, but this time, my attention was to focus on obtaining a trade license and settling down.  Once the visa formalities were completed, my family could join me, hopefully in the next six months.
A friendly hostess announced the flight details; that it would take 2.45 hours to reach Dubai, and that meals would be served.  I had got up early to catch the flight and was looking forward to a quick nap.
The intermittent rattling of gun fire was followed by deathly silence. Couple of rockets zoomed past the head and a big blast followed, with shrill cries of agony. Nobody dared to venture out in these conditions, not even to peep outside on the balcony, lest being shot by someone or the other.  My apartment, in Saleh Shatilla Building, on Rue Jean d'Arc was just a stone’s throw away from the Piccadeli Centre on Rue Hamra, and it would take three minutes to walk down the road, when snipers stopped for a break.  Yes, Beirut, the lovely capital of Lebanon, was on fire, due to sectarian war coupled with political uncertainty.  My office was in the fifth floor of Piccadeli Centre.
 Punctually I would go to the office in the fifth floor; Rozine, the Armenian Christian girl would not be there; often Rhonda, the Muslim girl would turn up for a short while just to check if everything was ok. We would spend an hour or two clearing papers and answering the telexes (we proudly displayed the Hindustan Teleprinter machines, which we helped to promote sales locally), and then lock up to return home.  Red Shoe, the famous shoemaker was in the ground floor shopping arcade of Piccadeli Centre, and once we crossed the road, on Hamra Street, we would see the glittering display of chandeliers and other electrical items in the Debbas showroom.

Adjacent to Debbas was the bakery, which baked the basic khubbas (Lebanese roti, if you like to call it, made of maida), a full 12 inches in diametre and freshly baked and delivered for the equivalent of some 10 US cents a piece.  Most lived on khubbas, a dip of hommus (made of Kabuli chana/garlic/lemon/olive oil with salt to taste) and occasionally babaghonnus (well, Lebanese equivalent of Baigan ka Bartha). Couple of minutes later, I would be home. My family was evacuated and I lived there sharing my large apartment with a couple of friends, for a good three months in the last quarter of 1975. I was preparing to wind up the office.
The sweet voice of my hostess woke me up from my deep slumber.  Air India food on the onward journey to Dubai was always nice. My neighbours were having a drink, and I must have not heard when the drink trolley passed by. In any case, I did not want to smell bad when I did the customs, who did not bother, if you carried a couple of bottle of Chivas in your hand bag.
I could hear the landing gear being released, and on left see the construction of the Galadhari building in the corner. In good old days, not long ago, in 1969, during my very first trip, I recall having to get off the shared taxi at the check-post, where a security policeman on duty would ask for your ID and, believe it or not, dump your passport in big wooden crate, in which there would be fifty or more, as we were about to enter the “no man’s land” long winding road that would take us to Sharjah. Then, of course, when you returned back, hopefully and thankfully, retrieve the passport as you “re-enter” Dubai, to which Emirate you have got your visa. The seven Emirates were independent Sheikdoms, and only couple of years later, they would form a federation to make the United Arab Emirates!
My visit visa was obtained through a colleague, whose doctor wife was a personal physician to an embassy official.  Getting a visit visa was not difficult if you were on flight with a stop over at Dubai, but, as more and more people of all nationalities, particularly enterprising Indians, Pakistanis and Palestinians, they would simply enter the country and go underground!  Then, find a job, a sponsor and then manage to get a ‘legal’ visa to work.  The overwhelming desire to entire Dubai was so great that a great number of illegal immigrants took the boats from Kerala to reach the shores of this country!
It did not take long to pass through the immigration and customs, and after collecting my baggage, managed to arrive at the office of Patel Trading Company (PTC) whose patriarch, Purushottam Das Patel, has a large diesel engine factory in India, and who, did not want his son Rohit to be given a golden spoon to feed, but work his way from the bottom. “Mr PD" as he was affectionately called, a serious entrepreneur, qualified engineer, and to whom, really, work was worship.

A very loving and generous person, he eventually set up a manufacturing plant in the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, years later, while PTC remained the bastion of his work and Rohit’s personal achievement as a leader in many fields.  In more than one sense, PD was my godfather in Dubai and a generous host, with whose kindness and hospitality, I was able to set up my shop, literally, as the first step.  It was a small step, but it took a long twenty-one years, before I would take the next.

(AK Ramdas has worked with export organisations, initially in India. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US.) 

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