Baba Zayed, my father

Magazine cover What was it like to be a daughter of the father of the country? Sheikha Latifa talks about her memories of growing up with the founder of the UAE and the profound influence he had on her life.

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What was it like to be a daughter of the father of the country? In an exclusive interview, Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi talks to Sheikha Latifa about her memories of growing up with the founder of the UAE and the profound influence he had on her life.

Emiratis have always looked up to Sheikh Zayed for direction. We always stood up when we saw him coming, and we are still all living in his presence. He was the godfather of every child, man and woman in this country. We called him "the father" in our poems, and we refer to him sometimes simply as "Baba Zayed". However, some of us - his children - knew him in a different way. He raised them more closely than he raised us and they held on to what they learnt. They have taken the nation forward as a duty to complete his legacy. The eldest is Sheikh Zayed's son, our current leader, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who, with his brothers and sisters, are role models to many Emiratis because they have his qualities. As an Emirati woman, I was honoured to be given the chance to learn about Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan through the eyes of one of his daughters. Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Zayed welcomed me into her Abu Dhabi home to speak about her life with him in an exclusive interview in the days running up to our country's 38th birthday celebrations. When I ask my first question - "How would you describe yourself?" - she says with the greatest pride I have ever seen in a woman: "I am a daughter of the Emirates." She punctuates it with a bright smile that is startlingly reminiscent of Sheikh Zayed's. It makes me feel both honoured and welcomed in her majlis, which is decorated with photos and paintings of her father at different ages. Sheikha Latifa's mother is Sheikha Ayesha. Their main palace is in Al Ain, but they have another in Abu Dhabi. Sheikha Latifa is renowned for her interest in Emirati women, as well as in the country's social, religious and artistic initiatives. She established a centre for Quranic recitation called Dar Al Khair (House of Good Deeds), referring to Sheikh Zayed's nickname, Zayed Al Khair. She has recorded CDs of the Quran in different languages, to be distributed by embassies. She has also been involved in publishing books, such as Al Qaed Wa Al Maseera (The Leader And The Journey), about Sheikh Zayed's life and work, and Gannit Al Sabireen (Heaven Of The Patient People), about how one can learn to be patient, wise and charitable through the Quranic verses. One of her recent projects was the poetry and music festival held in March at the National Theatre. It was the final event of the Nasheed ceremony held as part of the Abu Dhabi National Campaign for Social Cohesion 2009, which aims to build a community that cherishes family stability, reduce the incidence of divorce, educate newly married couples and give them the skills to solve marital conflicts.

"I love Nasheed because the performers rely only on their voices and there are no instruments to detract from the beauty of their singing," she says. Sheikha Latifa often holds gatherings in her majlis, where female speakers discuss various religious, cultural and educational topics. In fact, when I arrive, her staff is setting up an outdoor banquet for a lecture about the pilgrimage season that is going to take place after our interview. She and her brothers and sisters were given an early taste of discussions like this by their father, who wanted to cultivate his children to think independently to prepare them for their future responsibilities. "My father never underestimated anybody," she says. "He always took what we said seriously and discussed it with us back and forth."

Part of their education came from the clear roots of Islamic traditions. Sheikh Zayed cherished all the Islamic teachings and knew they were the core of everything in life. He studied Islam as a child, and made sure his children did, too. "Religion to my father was very important. He was concerned that we did our prayers, and gave to charity, and gave more to orphans, especially during Ramadan." Their life was also full of fun: Sheikha Latifa says their father always tried to create an atmosphere of happiness and smiles with his children. He was known for his sense of humour; he enjoyed playing pranks on his children and tolerated the jokes they played on him. It helped take away some of the stress of the responsibility he was carrying. Family gatherings were important, particularly during holidays such as Eid, no matter how busy his schedule.

As a girl, Sheikha Latifa witnessed him give a lot of his time and thought to bringing the Trucial States together as the United Arab Emirates in 1971. "His mind was engaged all the time with how to take his people forward and to bring them and his land together. He used to give his ideas about irrigation and architecture to specialists, and he was a leader in these fields through his own natural knowledge and clear vision. I was young at the time. I remember how he used to be really tired and sometimes the problems of solving the conflicts between the tribes would affect his health. It was not easy. Before the actual union, my father spent a long time talking the tribes into it, as he believed that with it would come power and civilisation."

Sheikh Zayed had not been lucky enough to grow up with his own father. He was born in 1918 in Al Ain, and was named after his illustrious grandfather, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa, also known as Zayed the Great, who had united the tribes of the area. When Sheikh Zayed was around nine years old, his father, Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed, was assassinated. After her husband's death, Sheikh Zayed's mother, Sheikha Salamah Bint Butti, played a major role in his life.

"Women were the heads of their families and they had so much responsibility, especially because we are a tribal society," Sheikha Latifa says. "Every single family is tied to the bigger tribe, and every family's pillar was the mother or the grandmother. Her voice was strong, and it was listened to and deeply respected. My grandmother, Sheikha Salamah, had a huge influence on my father's personality. My grandmother had an authoritative voice, like the women of the time, each in her family. She raised men. If she was not wise and did not take responsibility, where else would he get those traits? Now women are succeeding in a wider circle, which has some positive and negative angles to it, yet we should always know that raising the next generation is crucial for this country, and the duty of every daughter of this land."

As a father raising his own children, Sheikh Zayed believed in teaching them lessons through experience, based on what he noticed about their personalities. He knew, for example, that Sheikha Latifa was frightened of heights and speed, so one day when she was in her teens, he insisted that she ride beside him in a car as he drove around Sir Bani Yas Island. "I was sitting beside my father and he had the wheel, although I normally never sat in the front," she recalls, smiling. "My young sisters were with us in the car. And my brother Haza was in another car behind us. My father kept talking and pointing at things while heading towards a mountain. I couldn't see anywhere for a car to go.

"That's when I started screaming, asking for my father to stop, but he wouldn't. So I climbed across him to get to the key, switched the car off and threw the key out of the window. My father was laughing and calling Haza to come and fetch it. In no time, Haza stopped his car, found the key in the sand and gave it to my father. Off we went again. He climbed that mountain with my screams filling the air. When we reached the top, my father looked at me and said: 'Now, what happened to you? You are still fine.' "

Another adventure left a mark in Sheikha Latifa's mind for ever. About 20 years ago, her father took her and her brothers and sisters on a two-week hunting trip. It is rare for women to go on hunting trips with men, but Sheikh Zayed thought differently: one of his greatest memories as a young child was his hunting trips with his own father. "When my father loved something, he made sure that he shared it with his children," she says. "My father always prepared the four-wheel cars for us to come along and watch. It looked exciting, but it was really difficult to hunt with falcons."

One of Sheikha Latifa's fond memories of that trip is the night when Sheikha Sheikha and Sheikha Meitha, two of her younger sisters, fell asleep in their father's room, mistaking it for their own. "When my father went in and found my sisters sleeping there, he gently roused them and they woke up in his arms." Sheikh Zayed also made sure that his children shared his love of nature. "My father used to take us to Sir Bani Yas Island, which he loved, and turned into a nature preserve with many different plants and animals. Historical artefacts were found there, too, including a church that dates back to the seventh century. People think our land never had any history, but the facts prove them wrong."

Sheikh Zayed knew each and every one of his children intimately and had a great way of giving them what they needed. His advice to them reflected his own personality. "Always learn everything that brings you benefit and knowledge, my father used to say, and he always told us to be humble and independent. He wanted us to live with people and their problems and never be isolated from them," Sheikah Latifa says.

Sheikh Zayed was a simple man who did not like extravagance, and he took that element with him to his palaces, houses and majlises. For interiors, he loved the use of red wood and locally made items. For his meals, he liked white rice and chicken, saloonah, a soup made with meat and vegetables, and the classic red gahwa with zaafran (saffron). He also enjoyed halwa el omaniya, the traditional Omani sweet flavoured with saffron, nuts, cardamom and rosewater. He was a man of tradition. He loved to see his daughters wear the traditional khandouras. "My father always said that bright colours bring out a lady's beauty," she says. "The colours of nature were his favourite, like white, yellow, red and green. He did not like to see us wearing nail polish; he preferred henna. We usually used athmad for our kohl when we visited him."

Inheriting her father's appreciation for the country's traditions, Sheikha Latifa pays particular respect to those that originate from Islam. "Sometimes people get mixed up between the traditions and the Islamic religion," she notes. "In this country, the two walk in parallel, but it is important to know the origins of them. For example, the sheila and abaya are a tradition, but the hijab is religion. There are a lot of misconceptionsabout the women of this country. I remember once in our majlis a western lady asking a local one about driving, thinking that we are not allowed to drive. My friend told her that we can drive if we wish, but there are alternatives and out of comfort, we have drivers."

When it comes to religion, Sheikha Latifa shares her father's belief that all the fundamentals of life can be found in the Holy Quran: "You can never get enough from the wisdom in it." Her favourite quotation is from the Prophet Mohammed: "Prepare for your life as if you are living for ever, and prepare for the afterlife as if you are dying tomorrow." She lists both Mecca and al Madina as two of her favourite places to visit.

Sheikha Latifa advises the young daughters of the Emirates to hold on to their traditions, but she expects they will be more settled and focused because they fall in between two generations. She sees in them natural intelligence, shrewdness and determination that she does not see in other societies. Then she pauses and says: "Life is a process of giving and taking. It is important that you have a consideration for the family's satisfaction, as your satisfaction is important for them. There is no place or need for rebelliousness."

She, like her father, believes a society without education is a society without knowledge which can never be independent. She says proudly: "We reached a level in Al Ain where all the teachers of governmental schools are Emiratis. The new generations of this country cannot be taught by anyone except those from them, who are full of the past, know the present and hold on to their traditions." There is a saying in Arabic that means: "A Sheikh is not only who his father was, but is a Sheikh in his actions and qualities." Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the embodiment of this and it is clear that the tradition is carried on by his daughter.