Dr Zulekha Daud had never heard of Dubai until a few weeks before she arrived on the airstrip at the British Air Force base in Sharjah. It was at the height of a humid Arabian summer, August 20, 1964. “It was so hot,” Dr Daud later recalled. “All covered with sand. Big, big mounds of sand. No roads.”
The doctor and her few belongings were packed up in a Land Rover bound for Dubai, where she began her practice as the first Indian female doctor in the Trucial States, as the United Arab Emirates were then known.
More than half a century later and Dr Daud is better known by the nickname Mama Zulekha, having delivered more than 10,000 children and founded two hospitals.
She is regularly ranked on lists of the Arabian Gulf's most influential Indians, due largely to her work in this region and in her native city of Nagpur, in Maharashtra.
The doctor was honoured on Monday in New Delhi for her contributions to the Gulf by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation and son of the UAE's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. She is one of several foreign nationals to be recognised as part of the Year of Zayed celebrations organised by the Foreign Ministry's Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy.
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Dr Daud came to Dubai in her mid-twenties after working at the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait with her husband. When the posting was first suggested, Dr Daud and her husband had never heard of the future metropolis.
But even Dubai was considered developed compared with Sharjah. Shortly after her arrival, her hospital opened a branch in Sharjah. Dr Daud was the only doctor who volunteered to work in the neighbouring emirate.
She later told the oral historian Rasha Al Duwaisan: "I said, 'I will go, I've come to work. I'm not going to waste my time doing nothing.'"
Equipped with little more than her Arabic and a few rudimentary medicines and instruments, she worked from 4.30am until after dark, treating everything from fingers pierced by fish hooks to children who had swallowed kerosene out of thirst.
"Dr Zulekha has really adapted to the enormous transformations in the UAE," said Ms Al Duwaisan, who recorded Dr Daud's oral history for Binary States, a publication on the tight relationship between India and the UAE.
"She had to wear many hats, dealing with all sorts of medical situations, including home births, snake bites, bone fractures, smallpox, pneumonia and circumcision.
At the time, she had few diagnostic tools and depended on her intuition to interpret ‘signs and symptoms’.”
Her reputation quickly spread; people travelled even from Muscat for treatment.
Dr Daud delivered children in all circumstances, once delivering a woman's baby in the front of a car during the Hajj pilgrimage. "I took out my sari, tore it up, tied up the cord and took her to hospital," she said in Binary States. "I have to save people. I couldn't say, 'I don't know you, go away now'."
One another occasion, at the behest of a distressed Bedouin, she delivered a kid goat because its owner was so upset to see its mother in such pain.
In 1992, Dr Daud founded the Zulekha Hospital in Sharjah. She later opened a sister hospital in Dubai, three medical centres and three pharmacies. In 2004, she set up a vocational centre and charitable trust in Nagpur and continues her humanitarian campaigns.
"We have been working on rural development projects in India where we worked towards improvements in facilities and hygiene initiatives and also empowering girls' education," said Dr Daud, who was born in 1938. "In the UAE, we work with all charitable institutes to reach the needy … and provide accessible and affordable medical services to them."
She expressed her gratitude for the award on Monday.
“The award is an absolute honour for me and I extend my heartfelt gratitude to Sheikh Abdullah,” she said. “The UAE Government has always appreciated my work and this inspires me to do more for the nation. The people and its Rulers have been very welcoming, generous and motivated my endeavours, which gives me strength.”
At the ceremony, she told Sheikh Abdullah of the first time she met his father on a visit to Al Ain with her husband in the mid-1960s. She had provided members of the Royal Family with medical care and fondly recalled the hospitality of the late Ruler.
“Such a humble soul he was and the same care and compassion is seen today in the people of the UAE,” she said.
The ceremony highlighted the long-standing relationship between the UAE and India.
“The love and appreciation from the people I help keeps me going to do more for them because giving makes me happy,” she said.
“They all call me Mama Zulekha and that is the best feeling ever, to be upheld in the capacity of a mother.”
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