My UAE: the cultural exploits of Zeinab Saleh Farah

A profile of Zeinab Farah Saleh, who has set up the Bayt Al Qindeel cultural foundation in Abu Dhabi.

Zeinab Saleh Farah, who has set up the Bayt Al Qindeel cultural foundation in Abu Dhabi. Lee Hoagland / The National
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‘I don’t want to retire just yet, I’m still looking for new horizons.” So says Zeinab Saleh Farah, a woman of seemingly boundless energy, wide-ranging interests and an infectious passion for life. She describes herself as a “mother-of-four, microbiologist and culture fanatic”, but the truth is more complex. She has two grandchildren, two MAs and a PhD.

“My profession is science, but my passion is history and culture,” she explains. “I was always good at history and literature but I always found science a challenge – that’s what I wanted – so I accepted a place to study biology majoring in medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia in the UK.” For 22 years, she worked at the former Al Jazeera Hospital in Abu Dhabi, rising to the position of consultant paramedical virologist, in charge of the laboratory that conducted referencing testing for hepatitis and HIV.

She first arrived in Abu Dhabi with her father, a legal adviser to Sheikh Zayed, in 1966 and the family were rewarded for their services to the nation with Emirati citizenship. “Abu Dhabi at that time was very white. The ocean was fresh, you could smell the fish that had been caught in the morning and we had waves on the Corniche. Life then was very simple and very pleasant. Everyone knew each other because there were more opportunities for people to meet.”

She established a cultural foundation, Bayt Al Qindeel, earlier this year, with the aim of bringing together people of different backgrounds. “We need to understand the wonder of our own culture, the awe of it,” she says, “but I also want Bayt Al Qindeel to bring people together to enjoy and share other cultures.”

Bayt Al Qindeel – which means "House of Light" in Arabic – will run practical courses in the art of Islamic geometric design early in 2014. For more details, visit

The person you most admire?

I admire Sheikh Khalifa for his patience and for his leadership. I admire Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed for all of the efforts he is putting in. I admire Sheikh Nahyan, who is a role model for those around him. I admire my father very much for his deep culture and knowledge, and my husband for putting up with me.

Favourite film?

I used to organise a ladies’ independent film night once a month at the Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls. It was called Oumsiyaat, Evening Times, and now I am trying to revive that. One of my favourite films from those evenings is Water by Deepa Mehta. It’s a very touching film about widowhood in Indian society.

Favourite place?

Qasr Al Hosn is extremely dear to me. When I came, it was the seat where Sheikh Zayed used to receive; it was his office. We had our Eid celebrations in front of there. It is the memory and the history of this city and the people who lived and were born in Al Hosn are still around to tell you stories about it.

Favourite destination?

I’ve travelled a lot but I will always have a soft spot for London. I cannot resist it. I have a lot of friends there and culturally it’s a very vibrant place for me. I spend very little time shopping in London, but I am never bored. There’s lots to do.

Favourite exercise?

I recently discovered a company in the UK that organises walks in the countryside, regardless of what the weather is. It might be in Dorset, in Wiltshire or anywhere. I love that fresh air that goes deep into your lungs. You get home and you sleep like you’ve never slept before.

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