Memories of '71: Indian residents share golden memories of life in old Dubai

A much-loved Sharjah doctor and a Dubai grandmother remember their lives before the emirates united

Doctors and grandmothers who witnessed the birth of the nation almost 50 years ago say the transformation since then has been dramatic and inspirational.

The women have vivid recollections of the massive effort in the 1960s and 70s to turn sandy tracks into roads and upgrade rudimentary health centres into hospitals.

When Dr Zulekha Daud, 82, arrived in Dubai in 1964 from the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait, the young Indian gynaecologist did not just deliver babies on house calls.

Affectionately called Mama Zulekha, the first Indian female doctor in the Trucial States also handled chickenpox outbreaks and nursed accident victims.

“The one thing I wish to tell all countries is how women have always been respected here,” she said.

“I went practically every day to people’s houses to deliver children. I also had to treat infectious diseases, non-infectious diseases and accidents. I treated men and small children. I could not say, ‘go to a hospital’ because there were very few facilities then.

“It was the people who made sure I could stay comfortably.”

These were the early days in the British protectorate, called the Trucial States, before the union of the seven emirates.

She remembers travelling for hours to reach patients in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

Dr Daud founded hospitals in Dubai and Sharjah as part of the Zulekha Healthcare Group and has delivered about 15,000 babies during more than 40 years of service. “Can you imagine no roads between Dubai and Sharjah?” she said.

“There were no roads; we had to practically travel in the sand. Then schools started, hospitals, the seaport and the airport. These developments all happened side by side – everything changed.”

People celebrated with music and dancing on National Day to mark the formation of the UAE on December 2, 1971.

Can you imagine no roads between Dubai and Sharjah?

“When we had the celebration of one UAE government with Sheikh Zayed as the president ... he took the responsibility of health care, education and all-round development,” Dr Daud said.

“With the onset of ittihad [union], things started changing very fast. It was because of Sheikh Zayed’s foresight. It is astonishing to think how everything has developed here.”

Another long-time resident, Jaishri Gajria, 74, remembers her first overseas journey when she travelled by ship from Mumbai to Dubai in 1965.

She came to join her husband, Suresh, who worked in the banking sector in Dubai. Then a young bride, she recalls fewer cars, smaller homes and the camaraderie shared by neighbours because families met regularly.

“We were all friends. Neighbours knew each other well and everyone was happy,” she said. “It was also a difficult time because there was a lot of sand all around us. The roads came much later but at first there was just sand and mud.

“It was so different then because everything was nearby and we would walk everywhere.

"The water was salty and there was no gas for cooking so I would cook on a kerosene stove but we all managed well.”

The wooden abra was the quickest and most frequent mode of transport.

A short ride across Dubai Creek from Bur Dubai to Deira then cost four annas, which was the Indian currency that was used at the time. One anna is about one 16th of a rupee.

Her four children studied in the Indian High School, built in 1961 as the first expatriate Indian institution in the Dubai.

Suresh died at the age of 60 in 2003. Now a grandmother to eight, most of Ms Gajria’s family continue to live in the UAE that they have known as home for decades.

“We always felt sense of security and peace living here,” she said.

“I have never felt any sense of worry or fear in the UAE. The people are welcoming. It has always been a country that is open to all.”


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