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80-year-old Emirati woman cherishes memories about the UAE’s earliest sheikhs

Zuleikha Sayed Abdul Raheem was born in Abu Dhabi in the first half of the 20th century. She won’t be able to tell you exactly when as birth records were not standardised back then.

She cherishes her earliest memories of living under the then Sheikhdom led by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan and just how her current life differed from that of the previous days.

Some 30 years ago, before the seven Emirates came together for the formation of UAE, living in a tent and riding donkeys for miles to fetch water were typical, and a charcoal hob was the extent of kitchen.

‘Back then, we did not have buildings and houses like now; multi-storey homes like you see today. We used to live in tents near (Qasr Al Hosn),’ said Zuleikha, who is around 80 years old.

With no modern facilities, Zuleikha admitted that life in a tent was challenging indeed. ‘It was very hot, and we didn’t have air conditioners, and electricity. We used lanterns. We placed coal on a hob and cooked that way,’ she said.

Sheikh Shakhbut’s generosity

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan had ruled Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966 — before the benefits of the discovery of oil in 1964 could be realised and the metropolis we know now was built.

‘People of Abu Dhabi had lived a life that was deeply touched and improved by the Ruler’s generosity,’ she said.

‘We used to visit Sheikh Shakhbut’s palace to dig for water. We would ride our donkeys to collect water and fill the drums with water. It was a very simple life. The water they extracted was used for drinking, bathing, and cooking. It was very salty but that is what we had,’ she added.

‘With containers in hand, people would visit Sheikh Shakhbut’s palace every afternoon. They would line up to receive food. He would give out foods like rice, onions, and spices. He was very generous. All our Sheikhs were always very generous,’ she added.

The Sheikh Zayed era

She then started to recall the days after the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan assumed rule from 1966. She was around 25 years old at that time.

‘The beloved leader used to be a common sight throughout Abu Dhabi. He used to greet people and handle out money to those in need. He was generous to everyone. He (Sheikh Zayed) used to stop by homes in order to greet people. There was always a sense that our rulers cared about how we were doing,’ she said.

‘Following Sheikh Zayed’s rule, everything became good, everything developed. He built houses, roads, gave people farms, lands, and houses. He only wanted the best for his fellow Emiratis. And this desire for the nation still continues under the President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan,’ she added.

The art of Telli

Zuleikha is a mother of four children. She is also a member of the General Women’s Union and supports the organisation through her passion for the ‘telli’ – a traditional embroidery technique of the UAE. It is created by weaving strands of thread together into intricate patterns, creating a braid to embellish garments.

She said that she still enjoys doing telli and recites poetry while doing so as it feels therapeutic. She has taught her nanny, Lily, the art of Telli. Her nanny has been with her for 30 years.

‘It is my hobby now too,’ Lily said with affection, as she demonstrated about her skills, beaming proudly.

Lily made two metres of telli, which she said will be applied to the collars and sleeves of abayas – much of which is donated to the General Women’s Union for the purpose of using in various exhibitions.

Leaving her tent for a house

Zuleikha also carries on a family tradition of food distribution to the community.

About 50 years ago – around the time when Zuleikha moved from the tent she knew to the house she now inhabits – her family started giving out food daily to whoever lined up. In the same house, she has followed the path of early leaders in showing generosity to all.

The daily offering has changed a bit from the time it commenced. Zuleikha and her family would distribute laban (yoghurt drink) to those who lined up. During Ramadan, the household would expand the offering to include harees (a dish made of wheat and meat), biryani and dates.

‘We used to welcome up to 300 people at times, all lining up outside the gate. People from everywhere, different members of the community; everybody is welcome here. This is baba’s legacy,’ Lily said.

Five cooks would prepare up to 50 kg of harees per day and eight people would do the packing, including Lily.

However, in the last two years, they had stopped it because of Covid-19. But people still stop by and enquire about their harees.

‘Our Sheikhs taught us this – care in giving has been instilled in us from a young age. This is in keeping with the Emirati way of life. We want to keep the Emirati traditions alive. It is what we learned from our Sheikhs, that if we receive good, we return good,’ Zuleikha said.

Zuleikha concluded with her belief that the future looks bright for the UAE for the next 50 years. ‘It is developing so much year on year. I cannot imagine the amazing things it will reach,’ she added.


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