Without more UAE writers, younger generations risk growing up without learning of the sacrifices made by their predecessors.
Few countries have witnessed the changes that the UAE has over the past 52 years. There are endless accounts of folks who were born into mudbrick houses who went on to become cabinet ministers, ambassadors, business personalities and teachers. Countless indeed, but very few are documented in depth and written down for others to read and learn from. It is high time that the generation of Emiratis who have witnessed the birth of this nation put pen to paper the events they have witnessed and the stories behind them.
So far, there are perhaps less than a dozen autobiographies in total published by Emiratis while a few biographies exist by other authors, most notably Father of Dubai: Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum by Graeme Wilson and the Arabic book Zayed: From Challenges to Union by Dr Jayanti Maitra. Individuals should pen their own stories, too, during their lifetimes, as certain events and details may be omitted or left out by third parties otherwise.
Among the autobiographies by leading senior Emirati officials is My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, which traces his life, starting from his appointment as the first minister of defence in 1971. Meanwhile, the most extensive account from the UAE is by Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. His autobiography was published as separate books, with a first volume titled My Early Life, a second volume called Taking the Reins: The critical Years 1971-1977, a third called The Consolidation Years 1979-1987 and a fourth titled Culture, Education and Change 1987-2004.
Other essential autobiographies published by Emiratis include From Rags to Riches: The Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed Al-Fahim, which offers a look into the changing fortunes of a prominent merchant family from the UAE, and one by leading educator Dr Aisha Al Sayyar who is the first Emirati woman to obtain a PhD.
There are, of course, other methods of documenting the experiences of individuals who have witnessed the birth of the nation, such as extensive video interviews and podcasts. The best examples are those that can be viewed at the Etihad Museum in Dubai and at a number of other museums in the UAE. I understand that the upcoming Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi has also documented through interviews the lives of senior Emirati figures, while the National Archives has an extensive oral history initiative.
Younger Emiratis who have had the fortune to spend time with our elders also have a duty to document their lives for historical and scholarly purposes, but most of all for a younger generation who are growing up knowing little about the sacrifices of their predecessors. In my own attempt at doing so, I documented the life of my own mother, Nama bint Majid, also an educator, as per her own retelling of her life, in Building Sharjah (co-edited by Todd Reisz) and encouraged her to speak to Farhana Haider of the BBC World Service programme Witness History, in an episode titled “The first Emirati female teacher”.
In reality, however, little can replace the value of a detailed written autobiography filled with one’s own words, memories and photographs of days gone by. The older generation of Emiratis who have borne witness to the birth of this nation have an opportunity – nay, an obligation – to record the events they witnessed or participated in for posterity. Those who would prefer to avoid publicly tackling recent history can document and place it with the National Archive for safekeeping.
Diplomat and businessman Easa Saleh Al-Gurg best sums up the rationale of publishing The Wells of Memory: An Autobiography. In its preface, he writes: “I want to remember the often important events in which I have participated, which had an influence on my homeland and on the lives of many, many people living in lands far away from it. In the course of my life I have often been a participant in, or an observer of, many such events, and I am probably one of the few witnesses now in a position to record some of them. I have also had the good fortune to experience many lives in living my own. I want to set down the memories which are important to me and which I would not wish to see lost.”
He then adds, “More, perhaps, than anything else I want to offer my memories to my children, to their children and to all the others who will come after me, who may find some advantage in knowing what it was like to be alive during my lifetime; perhaps they may even understand better how the world which they will inherit came about.”