Activist, historian and archaeologist of the West and Arab world: my father, Peter Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer reflects on his father's remarkable life and impact

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - April 19, 2021: Peter Hellyer, Adviser Cultural Heritage Ministry of Culture and Youth, attends an online lecture titled “Spirit of a Nation: Community of Many Faiths”, during the online series of Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed. 

( Eissa Al Hammadi for the Ministry of Presidential Affairs )
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There will be many who will remember Peter Hellyer as an archaeologist, as a writer, a cultural historian, even as a “real-life Indiana Jones” of the UAE. I remember him as a father, whose early life as an activist was a source of pride, and whose fascination with the Arab world was deeply imprinted upon me.

Peter Hellyer was born in Sussex, in the south-east of England, on November 5, 1947, raised by Arthur George Lee Hellyer and Gay Hellyer (nee Bolt).

The Gardening Trust ran a profile on Arthur Hellyer, titled Arthur Hellyer: the greatest garden writer of his generation?. Arthur was born in Bristol, but his mother was from Jersey in the Channel Islands, and Jersey would play a big role in my father’s life. Born in 1902, and dying in 1993, Arthur had a long public career as one of the UK’s most well-known horticulturalists in modern history, with more than 100 books about gardening. Editing the Amateur Gardening magazine for more than two decades, he contributed gardening columns to the Financial Times, Country Life magazine, and Homes and Garden for many years.

Arthur and Gay eventually bought a plot of land in the Sussex countryside, where my father would grow up. After working tremendously hard at school, and benefiting from his parents’ support, my father finished his secondary education in 1964. He was due to start his degree at Sussex University in 1965; in between, his political consciousness began to take shape. He became an active member of the Liberal Party in December 1964, volunteering in a Liberal by-election campaign in February 1965.

He then became involved in the local Young Liberals branch, and during his summer holiday, worked at the Liberal Party headquarters, although at his university, he joined the small Liberal and Radical Society. My father wrote at length about the relationship between the National League of Young Liberals (NLYL) (the Liberal youth movement) and the left in British politics. The International Vice-Chairman of the NLYL, my father was most involved in campaigns on foreign policy issues.

It was at Sussex he met the likes of Thabo Mbeki, who would eventually become the president of South Africa, and who was acutely involved in the fight against apartheid. My father was markedly supportive of that struggle, and became part of the executive of the UK solidarity group, the Anti-Apartheid Movement. At the age of 21, my father helped develop the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign, which was launched in 1969 to block all-white South African sporting teams from visiting Britain. My father had funny stories about disruptive activities that he participated in as part of solidarity with South Africans fighting against apartheid.

He said of this time that he and others “share the satisfaction not only of having played a small part in that historic campaign but of knowing that we and many others stood up, against considerable odds, for what we knew was right. I am deeply proud to have done so”.

When I first visited Cape Town in South Africa in 2009, I was surprised, but very proud, to meet people who brought up his role in the struggle. I developed a personal attachment to Cape Town, which I visited many times over the following years, and it was my pleasure to have been able to introduce my father to people I met there.

His early life as an activist was a source of pride, and his fascination with the Arab world was deeply imprinted upon me

When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, I remember my father telling me that there were two causes he had been proud to have fought for, but that it was the South African one that he thought he’d see the success of in his lifetime.

My father wrote a lovely obituary for Mandela in 2013, whom he’d met when the latter visited the UAE in 1995. When Mandela heard a former member of the UK’s Anti-Apartheid Movement was in Abu Dhabi, he asked to meet him. My father was honoured, of course, and stuttered his thanks for the opportunity, at which point Mandela said: “It is my pleasure to meet someone who, when so much of the world was against us, devoted time and effort to supporting the anti-apartheid cause. It is I who should thank you.”

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war took place when my father was 19, leading him to become active in Palestinian solidarity efforts. A few months ago, he sent me a link to a book that he wrote called Israel and South Africa: Development of Relations 1967-1974, submitted in October 1974 to the UN Special Committee on Apartheid, and inscribed as an official document of the 1974 UN General Assembly. He was proud of that contribution, and agreed I should share it, which I did.

There were other campaigns my father was involved in, such as opposing the Vietnam War. But as much as he was on the left of British politics, he was not part of the ‘reactionary left’ that flattered the Soviets.

Due to his left-wing credentials, he was invited to visit the Soviet Union with others in December 1967 to January 1968, a trip he took, no doubt, out of incredible curiosity. While there, he insisted on visiting the tomb of the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin. In the Latvian capital, Riga, he spent hours with a young artist who carefully explained the history of Latvia’s forcible annexation by the Soviet Union and the validity of its continued desire for independence.

Stunningly, as we think about today’s background, he wrote about his visit to Kyiv in the following way, years before the current war: “In Kyiv we asked party officials to explain the nature of the Ukraine’s separate national identity.” A subsequent series of articles he wrote led to a formal letter of protest to Liberal Party headquarters from the Soviet embassy saying that my father’s pieces had “distorted Soviet reality”. He considered that to be a great compliment.

As his interest in the Arab world continued, my father visited Sudan in the early 70s, and met my mother, an Egyptian of Sudanese-Moroccan heritage, then working in Khartoum with the UN. He went to Cairo, and converted to Islam – I once saw his, rather long, Al Azhar-issued scroll that he was presented with on that occasion. He subsequently married my mother (who passed away some years ago), and they had my sister and myself. I often wondered how it might have been for an Englishman, from the south-eastern British countryside, to have gone from that kind of environment, to what he did only in his 20s. He’d already lived an incredibly fascinating life, and, without turning his back on his native UK, opted to invest a new set of energies into another part of the world.

In 1975, my father traveled as part of a Liberal Party delegation to the UAE, with the then Liberal foreign affairs spokesperson, my father’s long-time friend, David Steel. There, he first met Sheikh Zayed, only a few years after the UAE had become an independent nation, in the company of his Palestinian-Emirati advisor and interpreter, Zaki Nusseibeh. Nusseibeh became a senior and prominent figure in the UAE as it developed in leaps and bounds, while Steel’s career likewise spanned decades, including as leader of the Liberal Party, as well as a peerage in the British House of Lords.

My father’s first trip to the UAE developed into more of a relationship, and he started making documentary films about the country, and Sheikh Zayed’s overseas visits; in 1978, he moved to Abu Dhabi full time. Apart from an interlude in 1982-1985, when we all lived in London, my father lived in Abu Dhabi for the rest of his life – and even during that short period, he ended up in the UAE multiple times for extended visits.

Nevertheless, he continued to be involved in the Liberal Party, as an advisor to Steel. I remember taking a few weeks or so off school to join him on a campaign in the Scottish Borders in 1987, where Steel was running for election. Steel was the last leader of the Liberal Party before it joined with the Social Democrats to become the Liberal Democrats – he was also president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and his time there overlapped with my father's.

My own vocation in academia and research institutes took me back to my father’s native UK, to other parts of the Arab world and to the US. I often encountered people he’d met, ranging from journalists to diplomats to academics, to whom he’d spoken to warmly about my own work. When I engaged with senior figures in the British political establishment who had been in the trenches, so to speak, with my father back in the day, such as Lord Steel or Lord William Wallace, they would speak fondly of him. He had a particular fondness for Jersey, where he had a home; he loved Jersey, where I would often spend summers as a child, and continued to try to build further ties between Jersey and the wider Arabian Gulf, which the Channel Island warmly appreciated.

My father’s life before he reached the UAE was already a fascinating story. In the Emirates, a modern nation-state still in its infancy, he made his mark further, particularly in three different ways.

The first was in the development of the UAE’s English-language media. In the 70s, he ran the first English-language radio station; he was the editor of the main English-language newspaper, Emirates News, for more than a decade in the 80s and 90s; and he became an advisor to the Ministry of Information and Culture, and, subsequently, the National Media Council.

But a lot of his work in this regard was unwritten. Over the past few days, I’ve been contacted by people in the international media who, as many others had before them over the years, expressed their thanks and gratitude for the help and assistance my father gave them, in a field that is often wrought with difficulty.

They spoke of his generosity with his time, his contacts and his advice. I know he often helped people in a jam. As Nick March, assistant editor in chief of The National newspaper wrote: “Visitors fondly remember the piles of newspapers stacked around its perimeter and the assorted papers that cluttered his desk. Hellyer was always generous with story ideas and contacts for journalists and foreign correspondents.”

The second, which is what distinguished him most in the UAE, was his commitment to the history, archaeology and cultural heritage of the country. In 1992, he co-founded and led as executive director the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, and under his leadership the group identified sites that garnered international attention, in particular the 1,400-year-old Christian monastery site on Sir Bani Yas Island.

His passion for cultural and archaeological heritage meant he found much more than that, both via ADIAS, and also through the Emirates Natural History Group, of which he was chair for many years, discovering Neolithic villages in different parts of the country. Later, he supported archaeological work in Umm Al Quwain, which bore further treasures: another ancient monastery in 2022, and the Arabian Gulf’s oldest pearling village this year.

My father wrote multitudes of volumes and books, nearly all dedicated to archaeology, natural history and cultural heritage, particularly on Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Fujairah. He also had a keen interest in birdwatching – something I never quite understood, but evidently other people did. My father took the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, birdwatching on one of the latter’s trips to the UAE.

It was for this work in cultural history and archaeology that my father was granted Emirati citizenship in 2010; and a few years later, was bestowed an Abu Dhabi Award, the highest civilian honour in the emirate. At the awards ceremony, he was described as a “real-life Indiana Jones” and “self-taught jack of all trades”, while a video presented him how I think everyone in the UAE remembers him – wearing a light-coloured shirt, first few buttons undone, and a vest gilet with pockets that were probably always used for something or other. In his later years, he took to wearing a floppy hat to protect him from the sun. His dedication to the cultural and ancient history of the UAE has been noted perhaps more than anything else in recent days.

The third mark he made has been repeated by people who came to give condolences over recent days. Again and again: “He helped me.” I received countless messages, and saw various posts, from people I’d never met nor had any knowledge of, that talked about how my father gave his time, freely and generously, to those who wanted to ask him for his expertise. Someone wrote about how he helped them learn more about Madha, an Omani exclave in the UAE. Others spoke about how he assisted them in their careers and wrote recommendation letters for university admissions.

But I was proudest of all to hear from private sources how he also tried to help people when they were in unjust and mired situations, utilising his own connections to assist them. It’s not everyone who would leverage their own reputations and positions of standing in aid of those who were much more vulnerable, simply on a matter of principle – but I know he did.

When I published my first book, my father wanted a copy to put alongside his own, saying he’d have a little library just made up of books that my grandfather wrote, that he wrote, and that I wrote. I knew from others that he often spoke about my work with pride – with me directly, he nearly always focused his interest on if I was all right, and how my wife and his three grandchildren were doing, even though I knew he was one of my keenest social media followers. I’m grateful he saw cause to be proud of his son. Verily from God we come, and unto God we shall return.

Peter Hellyer, born November 7, 1947, in Sussex, England, died peacefully in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, on July 2, 2023. He was prayed over and buried after ‘Asr prayer on July 3, 2023 in Baniyas Cemetery, with hundreds participating in the funeral prayer in Baniyas, and the condolences sessions at the Intercontinental Hotel that lasted until July 5, from all levels of Emirati and non-Emirati society in the UAE. He is survived by his wife and their adopted daughter, his daughter and son from a previous marriage, three granddaughters, his adopted brother and his adopted sister.

Published: July 05, 2023, 1:00 PM
Updated: July 25, 2023, 9:04 AM