For the anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s birth on May 6, Myrna Ayad, author of Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy, recalls her journey to penning Assouline’s first tome dedicated to an Arab royal, out this month.
I am that person who scrolls down to ‘personal life’ when reading the profiles of people on Wikipedia. I am fascinated by the personal, believing it to be an individual’s core, a means to understanding and empathizing with them, a window that helps define and explain someone. As a child, growing up in Dubai during the Zayed years, I frequently saw pictures of this wise, handsome, and kind-looking man in newspapers and on notebooks and billboards. I listened to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s passionate addresses on TV and overheard my parents and family speak highly of him. He was Baba Zayed (father Zayed). My adolescent self regarded him as a saint, a sort of holy figure. He had to have been to have built this country that we live in and call home; he extended an unearthly kind of benevolence and compassion, comparable in my mind only to my maternal grandfather, Yussef Khadra.
And so, Baba Zayed took up a special and exclusive place in my childhood heart. All along, I wondered – and still do – who was Baba Zayed? I wanted to know about his ‘personal life,’ and every time he was mentioned, I saved those nuggets of information in an attempt to paint a profile of this divine mortal. There was one story I went back to time and again, and which – very powerfully – revealed several facets of Baba Zayed: he was often spotted on roads in Abu Dhabi using his agal (the black cord used to keep the ghutra headdress in place) as a lineman belt to climb up a palm tree to adjust mesh bags that protect dates. As a child, I was awed at his sensitivity towards nature, but also the humility in all this: here was a ruler who felt compelled to protect a tree and its fruit. As I grew older, the story swelled in meaning: it told me he cared for details, was keen to help, and that no one could be too big or too powerful to do so.
The story of how my family came to live in the UAE is one of sheer coincidence. It begins in the 1960s in the town of Bhamdoun in Lebanon, the destination of my maternal family’s annual summer pilgrimage; a 20-minute drive from the heat, hustle and bustle of Beirut, and 1 200m above sea level. Though my grandfather Yussef Khadra lived in Dakar, Senegal, where he operated several businesses, he would visit Lebanon a few times a year. One summer, the Khadras decided to stay in the then-luxury Hotel El Sheikh in Bhamdoun that was owned by the Matta family. My grandfather befriended the Mattas, who had been exploring business opportunities in Abu Dhabi. My grandfather’s interest in the UAE capital piqued; he flew to Abu Dhabi with the Mattas, partnered with them, inspected the land on which Hotel El Sheikh Abu Dhabi would be built, and construction began.
In 1968, Britain’s currency was devalued and its Labour government, led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, decided against maintaining military presence east of the Suez. That included the Trucial States, a cluster of sheikhdoms along the coast, of which Abu Dhabi was one. Baba Zayed, who became ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, long understood the power of unification and began working towards that. But people were nervous, my grandfather and the Mattas, too. And yet, my grandfather insisted on continuing construction and, essentially, giving this place a chance. Baba Zayed attended the hotel’s opening in 1969, and suggested a rename to Zakher Hotel, meaning ‘thriving’ in Arabic. Incidentally, it is also the name of an area in Al Ain, Baba Zayed’s hometown. Zakher Hotel did indeed thrive and became a key meeting point in the UAE capital. A little over a decade after Zakher Hotel’s opening, Lebanon was being ripped apart by civil war and the Israeli invasion. We were evacuated and the family decided to wait things out in the UAE. We’ve been here ever since.
Like any writer, I have a deep passion and covetousness for certain magazines, books, and publishing houses. Assouline is high up on that list and I’ve been collecting its books for years. When I received an invite to the opening of its Dubai store in 2018, something clicked. Perhaps taking the UAE leadership’s cue of ‘nothing is impossible,’ I pitched some editorial ideas, one of which was to author a book on Sheikh Zayed. I wanted to get to know him and tell the world about him, too. Two years later and Assouline’s first book on an Arab and a royal, Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy, is being published this month, in parallel with Sheikh Zayed’s birthday on May 6 and the 50th anniversary of the UAE. The book is a tribute to two great men, my grandfather and Baba Zayed, to whom I am eternally indebted. It has allowed me to gather so many more nuggets of Baba Zayed’s ‘personal life,’ none more so than the power to believe.
As told to Caterina Minthe. Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia