As we explore the past, it grows richer with each year

The third supplement from The National's History Project has unearthed stories that we can tell here for the first time.
Today, as we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the foundation of the United Arab Emirates, The National offers our readers a birthday present.

This is the third supplement from our History Project team, an informal group of journalists at the newspaper with a passion for delving into the nation's past.

We began in 2010 by telling the story of the creation of the UAE. Last year we marked 40 years of statehood by looking at four decades of astonishing progress.

This year's offering is a little different. After three years, the History Project has developed a momentum that has unearthed stories we can tell here for the first time.

And not just stories, but photographs and even a remarkable piece of colour film that shows Abu Dhabi over half a century ago and before the era of oil.

The cover photograph is a familiar image of Sheikh Zayed, the first President, but few know that it was taken by Jack Burlot, a French journalist who, at the age of 17, was the youngest photographer to cover the Vietnam War.

After leaving the combat zone, Burlot was sent, in 1974, on an assignment to Abu Dhabi to record nation-building, rather than destruction. Several of his images have already appeared in our Time Frame series in the Saturday Review section, but what we reproduce here is a little different.

Burlot was working in the city at the same time as a team from the famous French fashion house Cacharel. He persuaded one of the models to accompany him on a tour of the city that combined Abu Dhabi's landmarks, the country's reputation for open-hearted hospitality and a dash of Gallic style to make a wonderful set of images.

Also on the cover is a poem dedicated to Sheikh Zayed. It was written by one of the most remarkable figures to visit the country. Roderic Fenwick Owen first came to Abu Dhabi in 1955 while writing a book about the Arabian Gulf.

While here he struck up a friendship with the Ruler at that time, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan. Owen was also something of a poet and was encouraged by the Ruler to produce a series of verses, which are published here for the first time.

Owen died last year, but the writer Nigel Hart, who has been given exclusive access to his papers and effects, tells the story of Abu Dhabi's unofficial English "court poet" in these pages.

Owen also took the charming colour photograph you will find on the facing page. It shows a group of excited boys at, what in those days, was the social event of the year for the town's youngsters.

Deborah Hillyard celebrated her 4th birthday on December 22, 1957 and all were invited. She was the daughter of Susan and Tim Hillyard, who can claim to be the first expatriate family to live in Abu Dhabi. Tim was the representative of Abu Dhabi Marine Areas (Adma), the multinational concession that would find oil for the first time under the sea near Das Island just a few months later.

During their four-year stay the Hillyards made many friends among the local community, links which continue to this day. Deborah Hillyard shares her memories of her childhood in Abu Dhabi to tell the story behind the photo.

Her birthday celebrations are also recorded on a truly remarkable four minutes of home cine film unearthed in the Owen archives. Here is Abu Dhabi when it was little more than a fishing community of arish homes.

Our multimedia team has made the film available to everyone at, with the added bonus of a commentary by Susan Hillyard, who also wrote her story in Before the Oil: A Personal Memoir of Abu Dhabi, 1954-1958, sadly currently out of print. Now in her 80s, Mrs Hillyard's memories and her affection for the city and its people are still as strong as ever.

The past year has also unearthed a collection of stunning images by Guy Gravett. Better known as the official photographer for the renowned Glyndebourne opera house, Gravett also made several visits to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the early 1960s.

His work captures the spirit of the time in a series of engaging portraits and scenes that have never been seen before. Gravett's son Crispin shares his memories of his father's trips to what then seemed a mysterious faraway land, while credit must also go to Mike Hoban, a British photographer who worked with Gravett, and who has dedicated much time to preserving both the images and his mentor's reputation.

Finally, there is a glimpse of Abu Dhabi's vanished past. The Otaiba mosque was built around the turn of the century and stood near Qasr Al Hosn. Sadly it was so decayed by the 1970s that the only option was to demolish it. Our image, published for the first time, shows the mosque near the end of its life, as a new city rises around it.

Today the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed I Mosque stands on the site, accorded the honour of broadcasting the call to prayer across the city. Like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque it is a reminder that the price of progress is usually worth paying.

Published: December 2, 2012 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one