‘Her name will live on in RAK for generations to come’

Emirate bids fond farewell to much-loved and respected English nurse who set up RAK’s first modern hospital, and also travelled countless miles in a Land Rover taking life-saving treatments to mountain communities.

Ruth Ash, left, greets wadi emir Ali Rashed Al Hebsi, accompanied by her niece, Catherine Wilson, in 2013 during a welcoming ceremony for Ash at Wadi Qada’a. Jaime Puebla / The National
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When the English nurse Ruth Ash returned to the Ras Al Khaimah mountains after nearly 40 years away, hundreds gathered in her honour.

Tribesmen came from mountain villages across the emirate to celebrate the woman who had delivered their children and cared for their sick for five years.

Ash, better known to the people of RAK as Doctor Mariam, worked as a nurse from 1966 until 1971 in the emirate. She died at her home in England, on June 25, two weeks after her 80th birthday. The UAE Government sent a delegation to a service in her honour in Hinton St Mary, Dorset, held on July 14.

Ash came to the Trucial States at a tumultuous time before the formation of the union, but distanced herself from politics and earned the trust of local tribes. She travelled under their protection to fight the spread of polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, mumps, malaria, measles and rubella, armed with a box of pills and vaccines, tremendous resolve and great humility.

"Ruth was a truly honest, hardworking person, who always said her work was 'just work'," said Alan Sanderson, a British electrician from Newcastle who served in the Trucial Oman Scouts in 1968.

“She did not want praise. ‘Just doing my job’, she would say. I don’t think you will ever see or hear of anyone so dedicated to the hard task she took on, with virtually no medical apparatus or help.”

Ash first set foot in the Arabian Peninsula in 1964. "I wanted to see the world, so I saw Aden," she told The National in 2013.

“Fascinating. It was great fun, I was having a marvellous social time and I did a bit of nursing as well.”

She was posted to RAK in 1966. “When I went for the interview they couldn’t tell me anything,” she recalled. “They didn’t even know where Ras Al Khaimah was. I was told that I would be developing a hospital but I wasn’t expecting anything quite as basic as I got.”

Set up by the Trucial Development Office, RAK’s first hospital was little more than a few basic rooms, four beds without mattresses, three blunt syringes and an old pair of forceps. Ash soon met Sheikh Mohammed Al Qasimi, the grandfather of RAK’s ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr. After she had introduced herself by her maiden name, Miss Willis, the Sheikh gave her the more manageable nickname of Mariam. From that point on, she was known simply as Dr Mariam.

A smallpox outbreak pushed Ash to visit remote villages and hamlets. “We had to drop everything and go and vaccinate the whole of RAK,” she said.

“So Mohammed Rafai went one direction and I went in another direction and we spent about a fortnight, trying to cover everywhere, all the big villages and everything. That really opened my eyes as to what the situation was, where everybody lived and also I saw where they were actually living and what they were doing.”

Ash travelled under the protection of the tribes. Some could be suspicious of outsiders’ motives, even those of neighbouring coastal tribes or the British, but the Rulers were quick to make up a person’s character and respected the young English woman.

Her Land Rover became a regular sight on wadi trails. She trained and travelled with Salma Al Sharhan, an illiterate but experienced young woman who later became the first Emirati nurse. They worked in Wadi Al Baih as guests of Yamoor and Shaiban, sheikhs of the Habus tribe. In the south, she was welcomed as a guest of Ali Muttawa, a religious leader who had two wives in Adhen and one in Al Ghail, two communities where tuberculosis was rampant.

“You know, it was dangerous to go to the Shehhuh at that time but they liked her because she was like an angel,” said her friend, the historian Dr Saif bin Aboud Al Bedwawi. “She didn’t preach religion, she didn’t ask for money. She just gave.

“She came during a time when, you know, not many people were caring for those people of the mountains and she took on the hardship to go and visit them in their houses, to do treatments, to introduce herself. In one year she and her group immunised about 10,000 people. She reached her hands out to them. She was a lovely lady, always smiling. She never complained. I once saw a man kiss her on the forehead and I asked him, ‘why do you do this?’ He said, ‘she is a mother to me’.”

Ash left RAK in 1971 to set up Oman’s first modern healthcare facilities after Sultan Qaboos came to power. She returned in 1977 to marry her former RAK neighbour, Tim Ash, who had worked for the Trucial Oman Scouts and who, like his wife, was fluent in Arabic and deeply respected. When they married, the Habus tribe insisted on giving them a traditional mountain wedding.

“My father invited all the Al Habus family for Ash’s wedding, to dance the arwa for their wedding, because she was a great help for the Habus, and a support for the sick,” said Ahmed bin Shaiban, the son of Shaiban. “If a man was sick, she would treat him. They were a great support, [Tim] Ash and Mariam.”

Over the years, visitors from RAK were frequent guests at her home in England. A drawing of Sheikh Yamoor and his midwakh tobacco pipe hung on the wall. The couple attended graduation ceremonies and passing-out parades, staying a part of the RAK community, even across a continent. Mr Ash was 79 when he died in 2012.

When Ash returned to RAK in 2013, word spread quickly. She was part of a delegation of expatriates who had lived in Trucial Oman in the 1960s invited back to the emirate by Sheikh Saud. She was given a reception usually reserved for sheikhs.

"On one memorable day high up in the mountains hundreds of local families gathered to spend the day with us," said Lt Col David Neild, who lived in RAK during the same time as Ash.

“Mariam was rightly the ‘star of the show’ as she had been responsible for ensuring the survival of not only many of their elders but also present at the birth of many others [who were there]. Her name will live on in RAK for generations to come.”

The RAK government issued a statement of condolence to mark Ash’s death and representatives from the emirate and the UAE were present at her funeral.

“Mrs Ash was beloved by the people of Ras Al Khaimah for the medical knowledge and service she brought to the emirate during the 1960s and 1970s, and for the manner in which she went about her work,” the RAK government said.

“Her contribution is measured not just in what she achieved for her patients and for the standard of medical services, but in her reputation, which is still alive in the generations that -followed.

“She was a true friend of RAK.”

Ruth Ash, born June 12, 1936; died June 25, 2016