Memories of a simpler time

Sheikha Mahra and Sheikha Sabha recall their time spent in Al Hosn.

'We used to leave Al Hosn sometimes, for walks, to see the palm trees, our camels or goats,' says Sheikha Mahra.
Powered by automated translation

UPDATE December 05, 2018: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed reopens Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi

Sheikha Mahra and Sheikha Sabha recall their time spent in Al Hosn.

Sheikha Mahra

We lived a beautiful life in Al Hosn. Do you think it was hard or not nice? No, it was the best life. What would you want more than living with your family and every moment is enjoyable?

We lived all together: Sheikha Salama bint Butti Al Qubaisi (the mother of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Shakhbut); Mariam bint Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Mariam bint Saeed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (cousins of Sheikh Zayed and wives of Hazza bin Sultan, brother of Sheikh Zayed); my mother, Moza bint Butti Al Qubaisi; the daughters of Sheikh Shakhbut (Osha, Moza, Gout and Roudha); Sheikha Mariam bint Sultan (Zayed's sister); Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid Al Otaiba (wife of Sheikh Shakhbut) and her mother Sughaira bint Suhail Al Khaili; and Sheikha Sabha bint Mohammed Al Khaili (wife of Sheikh Saeed bin Shakhbut).

Sheikha Moza bint Shakhbut's room was next to the upstairs kitchen. There were many rooms in Al Hosn, enough for all of us. In the summer we stayed upstairs, and in the winter we stayed in the rooms on the ground floor.

We all lived on the first floor, in one corridor, one room after the other. In the second corridor lived Sheikh Shakhbut and Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid. I was in the same room as my mother. When we woke up early in the morning, we all gathered together in Sheikha Salama's room and had breakfast there. Sheikha Salama only had a cup of milk for breakfast, but for us everything was prepared. We had chabab (a type of pancake), mahala (a type of sweet eaten in the morning), balaleet … everything we have now. Fruits were also put in bowls.

God rest her soul, Sheikha Moza used to make mahala for Sheikh Shakhbut, as he only ate her special mahala. But there were cooks; we didn't need to go to the kitchen. We sat in the same room after breakfast. Sheikha Salama would sit with us, or on her bed, or do whatever she needed to. The bedroom was the sitting room and dining room. We did everything in the bedroom. So, we all used to sit in Sheikha Salama's room and ladies from Abu Dhabi would come and visit. Sometimes if Sheikha Salama didn't want to have breakfast we would have it in Sheikha Mariam bint Sultan's room. But lunch was definitely always in Sheikha Salama's room.

Sheikh Shakhbut used to get for his mother anything she wanted. I remember she liked nuts, so he got her almonds, walnuts and pistachios, and she had those after her glass of milk. She was one strong lady, God rest her soul. When she used to walk, the sand would rise from under her feet. She walked up straight, God rest her soul.

After that, we all sat together, enjoying each other's company. Sheikha Salama didn't have dinner, again just a glass of milk, so we had dinner with Sheikha Mariam bint Sultan.

We used to leave Al Hosn sometimes, for walks, to see the palm trees, our camels or goats. That was either in the morning or in the afternoon, after asr prayer when the sun cooled down.


Learn more about Qasr Al Hosn

In 2013, The National's History Project went beyond the walls to see what life was like living in Abu Dhabi's fabled fort:


In the winter we used to sit outside Al Hosn's south walls. Our ladies (ladies-in-waiting, as the British call them) and friends used to sit with us. A lady tailor would come to take some materials and measurements for our kanduras. They had sewing machines. Every sheikha in Al Hosn had her own group of ladies. We used to play pranks on each other and laugh about it together. It was a lot of fun. Later, my mother and I left Al Hosn and went to our own house. As well as Sheikha Salama bint Butti. She went to Al Ain. The wives of Sheikh Hazza also moved into a house of their own. But we used to visit my Uncle Shakhbut, Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid and Sheikh Shakhbut's daughters.

Before our time, of course, Sheikha Fakhra bint Hazza, wife of Sheikh Shakhbut and mother of his children, lived in Al Hosn. I don't remember her, but my mother said that she used to run to carry me when she heard me crying. They used to say that she sometimes did handiwork, like sewing. She was very kind-hearted, God rest her soul, and was very generous. She was sick a long time before her death. She passed away at the birth of her last daughter, Sheikha Roudha.

Sheikha Sabha

In that time we only had bedrooms. We called them dahareez. Later in Sheikh Shakhbut and Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid's quarters, they set aside one bedroom as a sitting room. After the ladies got ready, Sheikha Mahra, her mother, Sheikh Shakhbut's daughters and us, we sat in that living room. It had sofas. There was another empty room we used as a dining room. It had no furniture, but straw mats on the floor and carpets on top to eat on. Also the coffee was prepared in that room. They called it the saraidan. We had special ladies who brewed the coffee and served it to the sheikhas and the ladies.

In every room there was a dallah. Ladies of Abu Dhabi, all of them used to visit, Asha bint Mohammed (sister of Abdujalil Al Fahim), Shamsa bint Ahmed (mother of Ahmed bin Hamed), Mariam bint Abdullah bin Brook, Shareena bint Khalifa, and all the ladies, from the Al Rumaithi family, the Al Mazroui family, etc. Also Madiya bint Rashid, wife of Ahmed bin Masood Al Mehairbi, used to visit us sometimes.

People loved Al Hosn, and the people who lived in it, it meant to them a great deal. Many ladies used to come, and they would be given some money and other basic needs. Most of them visited in the evening, had dinner with us and took some back home with them if they wished. Guests used to come from Abu Dhabi, Saudi, Qatar, Europe … Most of them were wives of men who worked in Abu Dhabi. Some ladies from Dubai also used to visit us.

I remember one Saudi lady, her husband used to work in the police department in Abu Dhabi. She brought with her a huge radio with its speakers; you would think it was a studio. We all were astonished by it. There might have been radios in the souq, but we din't know about them, and the ones we had were much smaller. She brought with her Abu Bakr Salem tapes and played them for us. It was all very amazing and new.

Also, I remember in early 1965, one lady visited us from Qatar, I believe she was from the Darwish family. I remember she got for every one of us bags made from straw, like picnic bags with flasks and cups. The flasks kept your drink cold or warm; they were a dark green colour. I tell you, that bag was full of everything you would need for a picnic.

We didn't go on picnics at that time. If we went, we had proper feasts, and that was when we went to spend summer in Al Ain. Very rarely, we used to go towards the beach (now the Corniche). Once I remember, Sheikh Shakhbut had a new boat, and arranged for us to go and see it. One other time, Sheikh Shakhbut told us to visit the church. It was new then, the first church built in Abu Dhabi, by the sea. We went inside and the nuns welcomed us. On our way back, our car got stuck by the Corniche, and the drivers had to push and push to get the wheels out of the sand.

European ladies used to visit. Every European with a high-status job in Abu Dhabi, their wives had to visit. They would visit us in the morning, and we would welcome them in that sitting room with the sofas and chairs. They enjoyed visiting us very much. The sheikhs used to present them with gifts and traditional gold jewellery.

Sometimes, they visited in the afternoon, just after the asr prayer when Sheikh Shakhbut had his majlis. His life was extremely organised; we all knew his schedule. When he woke up in the early morning, he had his coffee and went to the men's majlis and would return by lunch time. Everybody visited him. After his afternoon nap and asr prayer, he has his coffee again and went to meet the people. We used to have fualla (brunch/afternoon tea) prepared for them and arranged in front of us.

Mashallah, we had everything. We had halwa, fresh fruits, canned fruits. Salha bint Saif used to go to Spinneys and Jashanmal; they used to get from there fresh fruits. Each type of fruit was arranged on one big serving platter. Not like today, where all the fruits are mixed in one bowl. And when any guest would come, we don't say, like today, juice or something is enough.

No. they must have cooked meals, balaleet, khabees, Arabic bread, mahala, with the fruits. Arranged in a big tray with handles, in the dining room. And people were welcomed. Even if they were going to have lunch/dinner, they must have the brunch/afternoon tea.

We all used to gather in Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid's mother's room, in the morning, around 7am. We took with us our handiwork, like sewing, our jafeer (sewing kit) for embroidery, making buttons. We used to enjoy our time, talking and doing handiwork. Only Sheikha Mariam didn't do handiwork. We sat in the muraba, the tall tower that was above it, where the two corridors met in the corner there was a room. Sughaira bint Suhail, the mother of Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid, stayed in that room. We had our breakfast there; Sheikh Shakhbut's daughters would come to have breakfast with us. The mahala was only made by the ladies.

Sheikha Gout used to make the most delicious agaili (mini saffron sponge cake) when Sheikh Shakhbut wanted it. The other cooking was by men from Balochistan. The man in charge of the kitchen was Hassan. When he was there, no one dared to enter the kitchen. "It's my kitchen." he used to say.

Sheikha Osha didn't come every day because she had young children and they had breakfast together. After breakfast we stayed in that room, and our ladies started to come at around 9am. We sat together until lunch time, had lunch together and then everybody went back to their room. This was when we didn't have guests, just our close ladies. The place was just enough, mashallah, for many ladies to gather.

Do you think we would feel bored? Never, there was never a dull moment, even though we sat in the same room, because we were very happy with our life. We didn't need to excercise; we were all leading a healthy lifestyle. We used to listen to the radio. We also had a huge record player. We used to listen to Bahraini, Iraqi music, etc.

We enjoyed that very much. Bahraini music was very popular then. Also we enjoyed it greatly when ladies, our friends, who wrote poetry would come and read their poetry to us. Always Al Hosn's guests were there in the muharam (ladies' court).

Al Hosn had respect and a special place in the people of Abu Dhabi's hearts. Once Sheikh Shakhbut was sitting in the majlis and asked for gahwa, one visitor named Mubarak (he came for his sharha, money that was given every six months or so to the people), he was so happy he jumped over a wall, even though there was a door.

Before Eid, Salem bin A'adhid, who was like a personal assistant to Sheikh Shakhbut, would go around to all the ladies and ask us what we needed from the shops, from jewellery, materials for thowbs, to candies etc. We chose what we liked and he would buy it. The night of Eid, in every room they put two steel bowls of rahash and halawa.

There were two guards under the stairs of the women's quarters. There were men's stairs in Al Hosn to make the accessibility easier and more practical to go where you want.

For our personal needs, we had a lady named Salha bint Saif - may Allah reward her prosperity - she is still alive today, she would go and get all we need from the souq. She never forgot what to get. Also, every day ladies who sold goods or had businesses would come to Al Hosn to sell to us perfumes and jewellery. We wouldn't call them; they came on their own. Bin Noori came from Dubai with his jewellery, necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets. Big ones and ones for everyday.

Also, when some business men selling special goods came from Qatar or elsewhere, someone who knew them would come and tell us, asking us if we would like to see. I remember Sultan bin Abdullah, from Qatar, brought beautiful jewellery. He would send someone to the sheikh to let them know that he would be coming. I remember the natural pearl necklaces he used to get, very popular at that time, everybody wore them, priced around Dh1,000 to Dh1,200. The ladies who used to sell them were well off. When they would come to Al Hosn, we used to buy what we fancied, as we never went to the souqs overselves. We never were in need of something.

When summer came, and everybody in Al Hosn went to Al Ain for cooler weather, everybody who owned a car came to Al Hosn to drive us to Al Ain. Hundreds of cars came. Of course, they knew that many ladies would go together with Sheikha Mariam bint Rashid, and they would be paid for the ride.

Al Hosn had its own cars and drivers, but still not enough for all the ladies who wanted to join Sheikha Mariam. When the ladies in Abu Dhabi heard that Maryam bint Rashid would be going to Al Ain, they would all come to her to let her know that they wanted to go with her.