(From left) Ahmed Bin Shabib, Tony Jashanmal, Khawla Bin Khediya and Amna Al Qubaisi during a session on "Portraits from the UAE" at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai on Sunday. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: The image of one of the oldest shops in Dubai that had camels, instead of cars, around it on the street and a photograph of a modern-day female Emirati F3 car racing driver’s helmet that bears the UAE’s logo falcon may not seemingly have anything in common.

But these images are among 50 powerful pictures that share the kaleidoscope of life in the UAE and the transformation it has witnessed across just half a century in a book that pays tribute to the country.

Emirates LitFest 223

Some of the contributors of the book ‘50U’, that was launched to commemorate the 50 years of the Union, came together at Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (Emirates LitFest 223) to share their journey of bringing the publication to life.

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Over a period of just 50 years, the people featured in 50U witnessed the transformation of a partly nomadic, partly town-based community into a globally active metropolitan society. Image Credit: For representational purposes only.

Transformation of the UAE

The book is the brainchild of UAE businessman Yasser Bin Khediya, founder and CEO of YBK Group, who commissioned Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom, known as the Queen of Books, to design 50U. It tells the story of the UAE in 50 portraits of people, plants and places, painting an intimate picture of life in the Emirates, with the memories and expectations of its inhabitants.

A copy of 50U at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Over a period of just 50 years, the people featured witnessed the transformation of a partly nomadic, partly town-based community into a globally active metropolitan society. Interviews with a former minister, a fisherman, an astronaut, a fashion designer, an AI specialist, a female racing driver, a contemporary artist, a conservation expert, a Japanese baker, a tailor and many more tell first-hand what it is like to grow up in the UAE or to spend the better part of one’s life in the region.

Jashanmal’s trip down memory lane

Tony Jashanmal, group president of retail giant Jashanmal Group, and Amna Al Qubaisi, the first Emirati female F3 car racer, are among those featured in the book who shared their experiences at the Emirates LitFest on Sunday.

They were joined by Ahmed Bin Shabib, one of the editors of 50U, and Khawla Bin Khediya, director of the YBK Group, who led the project from conception to production and coordinated the development of the book between the UAE and the publishing house Archis in the Netherlands.

A file picture of Jashanmal & Sons with camels in front of the shop in the early days. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Nostalgia reigned at the festival when Jashanmal shared the story of his family setting up business in the region as early as in 1919. He recollected how his grandfather, who had first established a general store in Basra in Iraq, expanded business to Kuwait and Bahrain and was then invited to Dubai by the then Ruler, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.

“Our first store opened in 1956,” said Jashanmal. He said an old photograph of that store with camels standing in front of it was deemed the best to include in the book that shared the story of the UAE.

“We sold everything from food to diamonds…and the doors were never locked those days.”

He said Jashanmal’s was the only place where people could get publications from the UK. People used to devour news about their hometowns though it took weeks to arrive at times. “Now, we get news that happened 30 seconds ago.”

Talking about the massive growth of the family’s business along with that of the country, Jashnmal said: We had become part of the family here…[Our] development couldn’t have happened without the welcome and embrace of the local community.”

He noted that the book not only delves into the past of the UAE, but also shows its future ahead. “We’ve seen that those ideas which were there, which we thought were fantasy plans. Now you see that they’re all there already,” he said, expressing admiration to the visionary leadership of the country.

Inspiring young Emirati girls

Al Qubaisi spoke about how grateful she felt about being part of the project, symbolising the change in the Emirati community, inspiring other Emirati girls to break the barriers and chase their dreams.

Amna Al Qubaisi, left, with Hamad Al Qubaisi. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Bin Shabib spoke about how challenging it was to finalise the 50 stories for the book. “I think it could have been done in many different ways. But I think in the end, the list is a spectrum, a kaleidoscope, a wide range of ages and demographics and people who are both alive and not alive.”

Bin Shabib said the book also featured his grandfather Mohammed Saeed Al Mulla, the UAE’s first Minister of Unification and the founder of etisalat and Emirates NBD, who passed away earlier this week and Bin Khediya’s younger sister whose story is told in the format of a WhatsApp conversation.

“I think the format of the publication has given us the reason to celebrate 50 years. It was a moment in time where, you know, it cannot be relived. For example, three days ago, my grandfather passed away, but we had interviewed him in the publication. And we didn’t edit much. We took the interview as is transcribed and we put it in the publication, effectively creating rooms in print. So if you flip through the publication at any page, and you go into one page, you can enter a room. What we wanted to do is to create 50 rooms in a publication and freeze it, so at any point in time you can walk back into that room, you can continue to listen into that conversation.”