I was just 14 when the Federation of the UAE was formed, but I was old enough to remember the days before and after December 2, 1971. And, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Federation today, it is a time of reflection, a time of remembrance.
The memories are filled with the unbelievable. Imagine a young boy like me at the age of 14, I had hardly any decent clothes to wear. We used to preserve our only kandoora for Fridays so we could wear clean clothes to the mosque. On most days we wore a wizar (cotton undergarment wrapped around the waist) and a vest. We wore this all the time - at work and play. Imagine a young boy like me in the village where I used to live in Jumeirah, we did not have shoes or sandals. We used to walk around barefoot. And on a special occasion, when we placed our feet into flips flops, it was a moment of luxury. The feeling of our toes catching hold of the rubber strap as the foot fell into place was out of this world. The memory is flooded with such vivid recollections.
I remember the first saloon car that came to our village. It was a big, black American car. It was used as a taxi to ferry people of our village in Jumeirah to the city of Dubai, which is known as Bur Dubai today. That car managed to drive into Jumeirah only after the road was paved. The sandy surface was turned into a clay road. Water tankers would do the rounds and spray water to make the surface strong and smooth. We used to run after the water tanker to wash ourselves, or drink water. And sometimes we ran after it for fun.
We had no running water. Water came from wells. Each home had one or two wells inside the house. And we used to pull up the water with leather buckets on a rope. We used the water to bathe, cook and other purposes. Some of the water was salty. To cool the water, we used to pour it into clay pots. Imagine, when we drank from the clay pots after a few days, we used to find small worms.
The first car drove down that road which divided Jumeirah into two – houses located in the north and others in the south. After that first road and taxis, things began to change. We were walking towards a more civilized life. Groceries came. We youngsters who played traditional games near the sea, started hiring bicycles to ride down that road.
In the days of my father, people traveled from Jumeirah to Bur Dubai by sea, or by land on camels and donkeys. When I was young, we went to Bur Dubai on rare occasions by taxis that charged us one rupee. Years later, Bedfords became popular vehicles as they could cut through the sand. The affluent owned Land Rovers.
I still remember the houses we used to live in. They were like tents made of palm leaves and fronds. Rooms were made in these tents of elegant designs.
In winter we placed carpets made of palm fronds against the walls to protect ourselves from the bitter wind and the cold. These kinds of carpets were called haseers, which we even used as rugs to sit on. In summer we made Areesh from palm fronds as they had small holes which served as vents to allow the cool breeze into our homes.
To bathe, we had to go to the well; we answered calls of nature in the desert. There were no bathrooms or hammams. With no electricity or power, we lived in the dark. The moon was our light and our best friend in the darkness. We filled lamps with wicks with gasoline and lit them for light. To cook, we brought wood from the desert known as hatab. Sometimes we got coal. Our lives were in black and white, night and day. We knew two colours – yellow and blue, the sand and the sea.
During those times, the impoverished times, we were called Omanis. Our fathers, to better the lives of their families and their children, would travel to neighbouring countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They would take up any job, even toil as labourers.
We were called Omanis because there was no country in this area. There were only emirates – Trucial States on the Omani coast. These were poor emirates, the people lived a harsh life before 1971. People depended on themselves to live from day to day - they worked in the sea as fishermen and pearl divers; they went to the desert to eke out a living as herdsmen; some farmed; and there were those who took to sea to trade.
It was a hard life. There were no schools to teach the children, no hospitals to treat the sick. And, as far as I was concerned, I was born in 1957. I have no birth certificate. A daya or mid-wife delivered me at home. My generation and the generation before us have no birth certificates as there were no hospitals. When we were young and fell ill, we were treated by the family. And if our condition deteriorated, we were taken to the mutawa, who gave us traditional medicines. That was the situation in the 1950s, 1960s and even in late 1960s.
But we must be thankful for the help of countries such as Kuwait and Egypt, which found progress before we did. Kuwait built us schools and supplied books; it constructed hospitals and gave us doctors. Kuwait also set up the first television station. It was known as Kuwait TV from Dubai. Egypt gave us engineers and specialized help.
In the 1960s, we started to see a different kind of life, we started witnessing change. In our village we had a school with a curriculum. We received a certificate at the end of our education. It was called the Al Maktoum School. We witnessed the first hospital. We saw caravans enter our villages to administer vaccines against diseases. The first power station was built in Jumeirah. It used to work for two hours a day at the beginning. We saw electricity for the first time.
The first television, a black and white set, was bought by a prominent personality in Jumeirah. We used to go to his house and gather around to watch television till there was electricity supply at home. Radios, as they were operated on batteries, came before television. But the ritual was the same – we would gather in people’s homes with radios and listen to news from Kuwait, Egypt and other countries. Most were eager to listen to speeches by Jamal Abdul Nasser.
The first public housing was built by Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and power was supplied to homes. Life progressed, slowly but surely, till the date of the birth of the nation on December 2, 1971.
That date, in fact, I consider my birth day because it gave me a country to belong to, it gave me my identity, it gave me a reason to rise and it gave me passion for a future. It also armed me with the tools I needed to achieve my personal goals and my nation’s dreams. But back to my school days, my friends and I who studied at the Dubai Secondary School belonged to the batch of 1974, the last batch to study the Kuwaiti curriculum. If we succeeded and did not repeat we would not have to study the new Emirati curriculum, which we thought would be different and probably difficult. We graduated in 1974. Those of my generation have school certificates carrying the logo of the Kuwaiti government.
The UAE Ministry of Education then took over, built schools, drew up curricula; and people who finished secondary school were sent to study at universities abroad. The health ministry also swung into action; we soon had water supply, housing, electricity and roads. The ministries worked directly for the people and provided us with a new life. I remember the first cinema – Haroon Cinema, which was located near where Jumeirah Centre is today.
The details of development are known, not only to my generation but also to expatriates, who joined the work force. The new generation of Emiratis too is very aware. But it is my generation that was witness to the transformation and the two lives we led. We saw how our fathers lived, and we are now seeing how our children are living. We should call ourselves the bridge between the two generations. But I am sure our two lives are not clear to the generation in their 30s. They were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
And when I compare our country today with other countries that gained independence or were formed before us, I really do think it is incomparable. In the 40 years, we have seen a wonder, the success has been unimaginable. And this is not all because of the leadership that also witnessed the two lives; not because of the passion of the UAE people to catch up with civilization; not only because of the wealth God has granted us. It is because of all this plus the stability and unity which we have witnessed since we founded the UAE.
The rest of history, from 1971 is known. You can see it around, you can feel it, you are a part of it and have benefited from it. This part of history speaks for itself. But it holds no value without remembering and understanding the other part of history, the other story, the first life.
As the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary, I am sure it will be a day of happiness and pride, but it also should be a day of remembrance. And with remembrance comes the wisdom of lessons learnt.