Abu Dhabi: It was a delightful moment for the then seven-year-old boy, when the class teacher announced “both you and this nation celebrate your birthdays today”, and all the children clapped in unison.
“I was the only one in class who stood up when the teacher asked if anyone’s birthday fell that day. Until then, I didn’t know that my birthday was on National Day, because birthday celebrations were not really common among Emiratis in the 1970s,” Mohammad Al Tunaiji, who turns 50 on December 2 this year, told Gulf News in an interview.
He remembers that in 1975, National Day was not a school holiday, but there was a colourful celebration in the school premises after the day’s first class. “All my classmates congratulated me when we went out of the class. I felt like a hero,” Al Tunaiji said, recollecting his first National Day celebration at Al Muaaireed School in Ras Al Khaimah, which closed down later to make way for a new school in its place.
His family members were also delighted that his birthday coincided with the UAE’s most significant day, when he shared the delightful experience at school with them. “They were all very happy, and the next year onwards, my family also started celebrating my birthday in a grand manner.”
“I was so happy. That year onwards, the week preceding the National Day has been a celebration in my life,” said Al Tunaiji, a media professional in Abu Dhabi.
The next year’s celebrations at school were more memorable. “The teacher gave me a gift: a pack of pens. I kept it like a treasure for a few years, without using it. Unfortunately, I was very sad when I lost it when we moved to a new home,” Tunaiji said.
Celebrations over decades
When he moved to Saeed Bin Jubair School in Ras Al Khaimah in Grade 7 and studied there until Grade 12, nobody knew his birthday, as National Day had become a school holiday by that time.
Still, he enjoyed the special celebrations led by his grandmother who was very patriotic and always talked about Shaikh Zayed. “We used to drive from Ras Al Khaimah to Dubai, where my grandparents lived. Grandma would make delicious dishes on National Day, specially since it was my birthday. She would also give me pocket money and we children would go Al Ghurair Mall, the only shopping mall in Dubai those days, to spend it.”
This special celebration continued every National Day, until his grandparents passed away a few years ago.
Another birthday highlight was at Al Ain University, where he enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Administration. The students from Ras Al Khaimah lived together in a villa and in 1987, one of them found out when his birthday was, in 1987. They collected money to buy him a gift. “As they couldn’t reach a consensus on the gift, they collected Dh500 and asked me to buy something for myself. It was a big amount in those days. We celebrated very well.”
After completing his studies, Al Tunaiji joined the UAE Air Force’s magazine as an editor and moved to Abu Dhabi.
Once, in response to an Abu Dhabi Radio announcement asking for Emiratis whose birthdays fell on National Day to come forward, he sent his name and passport copy to the station. “They received the names of 10 Emiratis and I was the winner among them in a gift draw.”
In his 50 years, Al Tunaiji has not come across other Emiratis among his relatives, friends or acquaintances who have birthdays December 2.
“Now, my children make it a special celebration,” said the father of six.
But that first celebration in 1975 was the most important one for him. “The Egyptian teacher who made my day went back to his country. His son is working here and I am in touch with him and get news about his father frequently. I always remember him on National Day ... and my birthday!” Al Tunaiji said.