Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 November 2020

Emirati photographer documents UAE villages where time has stood still

An Emirati corporate social responsibility manager has taken time out of work to create a photography book of 75 villages across the UAE.
Invitation To Play, one of the photos taken by Reem Ghaith in Umm Al Quwain. Courtesy Reem Al Ghaith
Invitation To Play, one of the photos taken by Reem Ghaith in Umm Al Quwain. Courtesy Reem Al Ghaith

Reem Al Ghaith grew up in a very different UAE.

There were no motorways, no four-floor villas and definitely no skyscrapers.

Now living in Sharjah, Emirati Ms Al Ghaith works in the sprawling metropolis Dubai has become, and spent most of her spare time last year finding and photographing tiny UAE villages which resemble the area in which she was raised.

The project started out documenting her old neighbourhood, Shabiyat Jumeirah, which features traditional architecture and modest one-storey houses with metallic doors.

From there she started to explore the east coast and the areas between the cities.

What she found surprised even herself — villages that felt as though she was stepping back in time to her childhood, with the same style of houses and communities with one grocery shop and a mosque and even children playing in bare feet like she used to.

“I took pictures of the people when I could but then I took general pictures of the general ambience of the whole village. There are even special trees that grow there. You see them on the east coast mainly,” says the corporate social responsibility manager.

“You see school buses taking children and then coming back and you don’t know where the school is. Even little things like deliveries of groceries. You see those small Vespas. The living is so simple and so beautiful.”

Although not a professional photographer, Ms Al Ghaith was well placed to document the villages, having practised the hobby most of her life.

But it’s a world away from her job at Desert Group, a leading provider of high-quality landscape leisure and lifestyle solutions, where she has worked for more than 10 years.

Managing the company’s CSR programme she has overseen the hiring of 32 gardeners with intellectual disabilities to work at a nursery. But outside of work hours, she has devotes her time to her art.

“Photography was always a passion. The last few years I have been concentrating a lot more on it,” says Ms Al Ghaith, who held her first solo photography exhibition in 2010.

After coming across a couple of the small settlements, she decided to document more and drove across the UAE in search of the villages.

“I just got into my Toyota FJ, had Google maps handy, water and whatever I could eat and I would just go,” she says.

Many of the villages are signposted, but Google maps also helped her find clusters of residential areas, particularly the ones nestled between mountains.

She photographed dozens, eventually capping the number at 75. It took her six months to catalogue them all, fitting the work around her regular job.

“Some of it was on the weekends but then I had to have leave from work,” says Ms Al Ghaith. I used annual leave that was totally condensed into 30 days.”

What started out as a personal project was then shared on social media with her followers.

“I got questioned about it, where is this place? That educational aspect was special to me,” she says. “Speaking to nationals like myself I don’t think they are aware of the amount of people out there. It was shocking what I found. The sizes of the communities, the number of the villages, the way they are living.”

And she figured that if Emiratis do not know about them, most expatriates would not either, so she decided to create a book featuring photographs from the villages to educate people about them.

The book, Hidden Jewels: 75 UAE Villages, is expected to be published this year. It will feature pictures of each village with text and a map to show where it is.

She is hoping the book will help establish her name as a photographer, and perhaps pave the way for the day when her hobby could become a career.

“I am still struggling to find what I can do to be different from others because with trends it is very difficult to have your own name and to have your own brand.

“I am not doing the book for business. I might just take the whole proceeds and donate it,” says Ms Al Ghaith, who also started the group, mobipixuae, at the end of last year to promote photography and showcase the talent of emerging enthusiasts and professional photographers here. It claims to be the first mobile photography community of its kind in the UAE and fundraises for 100Cameras, a New York-based NGO which teaches children to record their lives through photography.

But she’s not turning her back on her existing career altogether.

“I love what I do in my CSR job I hope to continue with that and have photography in parallel,” adds Ms Al Ghaith.


Updated: September 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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