Sheikha Osha returns to her childhood

Sheikha Osha grew up in Qasr al Hosn when it was a royal palace and residence. So when the opportunity arose to revisit her childhood home she was delighted to take it.

Sheikh Shakhbut walking inside Qasr Al Hosn. Courtesy of The Ruling Family
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UPDATE December 05, 2018: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed reopens Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi

The landscape may have changed dramatically since she last lived there 47 years ago, but Sheikha Osha, one of the most respected elders of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, vividly remembers her childhood home.

"It is just down there, tell him to turn here," she says, asking one of her accompanying granddaughters to direct the driver to her former home, which also happens to be the oldest building in Abu Dhabi.

It stands right in the heart of the capital. The solitary white palace of Qasr Al Hosn, or "Fort Palace", served as a fortress, a royal residence and the seat of government of the Al Nahyan rulers of the emirate of Abu Dhabi from 1795 to 1966.

Hearing of this chance to tour their grandmother's former home, three young granddaughters join in, packed into one car, all excited about the rare glimpse into their family's past.

The palace started as a single watchtower built sometime between 1760 and 1762 to guard over the only freshwater well on Abu Dhabi Island, and was transformed into a small fortress in 1795 by one of its first residents, the ruler Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan. It was expanded into an even bigger fortress in 1939 by the former ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He added rooms for his family, including a vast one for his mother, Sheikha Salama, and rooms for his brothers: one for the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates; Sheikh Khalid; and Sheikh Hazza. Sheikh Shakhbut was the last ruler to live in Qasr Al Hosn, and was Sheikha Osha's father.

"Such great memories," says Sheikha Osha, her eyes sparkling from behind her burqa and national dress as we approach the palace.

A delicate woman, but with a strong presence, Sheikha Osha cannot stop smiling at the very mention of her former home.

"My father was always walking around with a gentleman's stick and would play pranks on us," she says. "He would challenge us to shoot a target somewhere in the distance and promise us prizes if we succeeded."

The sheikha, along with many great figures of the Al Nahyan dynasty who belonged to the Al Bu Falah clan of the famous Bani Yas tribal confederation, was born inside the fortress along with her three sisters and two brothers. She has outlived four of them, with only a sister in Al Ain remaining.

"It was the only building made of stone, and was the most recognisable landmark to anyone approaching from land or sea," she says as we stop at the gates. Sheikha Osha explains that back then, homes surrounding the fort were traditional arish, portable small houses made of palm tree fronds and stalks.

"Ships approaching our home would fire their cannon in salutation, with British ships firing twice unlike with other ports where they fired only once," she recalls with pride.

Great leaders of the time visited Qasr Al Hosn, such as the late King Hussein of Jordan; King Salman, the father of King Essa of Bahrain; and an endless stream of western diplomats.

"When my father used to sign an agreement or treaty, he wouldn't hand it over directly to the actual diplomat. He would place it on the table for it to be picked up," says Sheikha Osha. "He was forthright, and used to stick to a set of rules of conduct and behaviour."

But as is the case of any public figure, Sheikha Osha saw a different side to her father.

"Once, while praying, upon hearing a cat in distress within the walls of the fort, Sheikh Shakhbut asked about it, and when he found that someone took the cat's kittens to the souq, he demanded they be returned to the mother," she says.

Only the tips of Qasr Al Hosn's white towers are visible over the barricading colourful hoardings, erected while the fort awaits restoration. Sections of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation building right next to it have already been demolished as part of the renovations.

Sheikha Osha is anxious over what changes may have been introduced to her former residence. Right away, she notices how the majestic stone archway that once greeted visitors is gone. The shelter at the front where animals including horses and camels were kept has also been removed.

"This is not the original door," she says, touching the dark wooden door as she makes her way through the front gate. Along the gate, the original colourful floral Arabesque designs have survived the test of time.

Out of reverence, the younger family members always walk behind or next to their grandmother, never ahead.


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:


Four ancient cannons have been left in their original place near the entrance. Inside, the fort is divided into a squared "old section", where the men of the families lived, cordoned off by walls and gates from the bigger extended part built around it by Sheikha Osha's father, where the family lived. In the male section, matters of state were dealt with in a designated majlis and offices open to the public. Both the old and the new forts had towers built in three corners, circular ones at a diagonal to each other and a square one, known as Morabaa, built in the east. The royal guards, known as matarzy, would stay in the rooms in the towers and keep watch from the small windows overlooking the horizon.

"This used to be a prison," says Sheikha Osha, pointing to one of the rooms at the bottom of the square-shaped tower inside the old fort. "The actual pit is gone, they built over it."

She remembers how those accused of public disturbances would be locked up with wooden logs around their legs held in place with a lock.

Sheikha Osha goes on to identify each and every one of the rooms, from the one that formerly belonged to her father and his immediate family, to his brothers' and their wives' and children's rooms. At one point, about 30 Al Nahyan members lived in the fort.

Each of the rooms is the size of a typical one-bedroom apartment, with five to 10 windows in each, and a separate room as a bathroom.

The bathrooms are no longer there and the windows have been walled in. The two kitchens are also gone.

"There was always traffic coming in and out of the kitchen," Sheikha Osha says.

Lined along the perimeter of the squared fort, the great hall of rooms overlooks the massive courtyard. Now, tall glass windows separate the rooms from the outside.

"All the rooms were open with lots of sun and fresh air, and there was sand everywhere instead of these paved walkways," says Sheikha Osha. She used to enjoy the feeling of the sand tickling her feet as a child.

After the family left the fort with the succession of Sheikh Zayed in 1966 as Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Hosn was abandoned as a residence and parts of it were turned into an administrative building until the 1990s. Between 1975 and 1985 the fort was renovated on the orders of Sheikh Zayed, but there were a few mishaps that left much of the original fort modified.

One of the features that Sheikha Osha was particularly happy to see survive were the intricate panel paintings in each of the rooms.

Bright flowers of red and yellow, a gazelle and its child in honour of the name of the emirate itself (Abu Dhabi means "father of the gazelle"), and peacocks were just some of the paintings - some more than two metres tall -covering the walls of the rooms near the ceilings. Inside Sheikha Salama's room, a floral design, with the words "Ma Sha Allah" (Allah has willed it) and the date 1359 (1939 on the Gregorian calendar), marked the completion of the new fort.

"So much history in each of these rooms, and those that once lived here," says Sheikha Osha.

Among her fondest memories are how she would join the other children in eavesdropping outside the majlis and of Sheikh Shakhbut's library, where the radio would be playing.

"Life was very simple then," she smiles.

Back at her home in the Al Bateen area of Abu Dhabi, where members of the ruling family live in separate villas within walking distance of one another, Sheikha Osha makes a point of personally finding all the old photos from within Qasr al Hosn that she kept safely in one of her living rooms. She goes through them with her grandchildren.

One black-and-white photo from the early 1950s holds a special place for her. It is of a young Sheikha Osha, photographed with her two sons, Sheikh Nahyan and Sheikh Ahmad, and Susan Hillyard, who lived in Abu Dhabi in the 1950s and later wrote an account of her life here. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, now the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, was about 3 years old in the photo and was playing with Deborah, Hillyard's daughter.

"This was all gold," she says, pointing to the blurry adornments along her headscarf. Sheikha Osha and the other women in the photoare wearing traditional dress, their faces modestly covered with burqas. They are also all wearing comfortable slippers.

Hillyard's book, Before the Oil: A Personal Memoir 1954-1958, includes her meeting with Sheikha Osha. While the book is out of print, Sheikha Osha remembers all the questions Hillyard had about Emirati culture and how she was welcomed into the royal residence.

"I felt there was a lot of misinformation about our culture, and so I explained to her why we do this or what is tradition and not," says Sheikha Osha. "It is important to bridge and understand cultures," she adds, a principle she has passed on to her children and grandchildren.

Turning to a photo of her father, sitting at the head of a table entertaining guests for dinner, she pauses before retelling a popular story passed down the generations involving her father and a British delegation.

"He was visited by a delegation that took six months to draw up an urban plan of Abu Dhabi," she says. "When they asked my father to sign it immediately because they had a flight to catch, he simply replied to them that, 'Well, since it took you six months to complete this, you can't expect me to review it and make my decision on it this second.'

"That was my father," Sheikha Osha says with a smile.

While her new home is quite different from the home of her youth, and she has lived in and visited many countries, there is one feature that she insists on having near her - flowers. Perhaps the most telling characteristic of Sheikha Osha is one she holds back until visitors leave her house.

She goes into her garden, and picks the most beautiful red flower as a farewell gift.

"A remembrance," she smiles.