When the UAE was young

Newly discovered images, both still and moving, cast light on a high point of the Abu Dhabi social scene in 1957: Deborah's Christmas, a party at which all were welcome.

Two dozen eager children gather on the sands of Abu Dhabi for Deborah Hillyard’s fourth birthday party in 1957. The thin shadow at centre right could be from a pole atop the Hillyards’ home. Courtesy Literary Estate of Roderic Owen
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It is a sunny afternoon in late December 1957 and as the shadows lengthen, so the excitement grows among the youngest inhabitants of Abu Dhabi.

The occasion is a birthday party. And not just any anniversary, but "Deborah's Christmas," an established part of the town's social scene, admittedly in those times not as diverse as it is today.

Deborah Hillyard is 4 years old today, December 21, and everyone, including these young men of the town, is invited to join in the celebrations, which come just a few days before Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.

This photograph captures a group of happy guests, most of whom will now be in their 60s and 70s. Some are obviously in their best kanduras. Others may come from humbler backgrounds. None have shoes. All were welcome.

The photo was discovered earlier this year. It was taken by Roderic Fenwick Owen, a British writer who visited Abu Dhabi as a friend of Deborah's parents.

Owen died last year, with this image unearthed during research into his papers. And not just one image. In a box was a short reel of film, shot in colour and showing not only scenes of the same birthday party, but also unique footage of Abu Dhabi in the time before the oil.

Before the Oil also happens to be the title of a memoir written by Deborah's mother, Susan Hillyard, whose husband, Tim, was in charge of offshore oil exploration in the emirate. The Hillyards moved to Abu Dhabi in 1954, the first western expatriates to live here.

An account of the party is given in Before the Oil, now out of print. The last two parties had attracted large numbers of children, so, taking a trip to Bahrain earlier in the month, Mrs Hillyard was able to stock up with supplies.

Visiting an Indian-owned store in Manama, the proprietor was astonished at the quantity of cakes and sweet goods being ordered.

On being told it would have to feed around 100 children, the shopkeeper was confused, assuming the party was for expatriates and wondering why so many westerners had suddenly arrived in Abu Dhabi.

"These are the children of the town," Mrs Hillyard explained, adding that: "His mouth dropped open" and that the shopkeeper added some lollipops and "another big Christmas cake with my compliments."

The Hillyards lived a short distance from the main town, near what it is now Capital Garden Park and 3rd Street. The house had been purpose built, and had electricity and limited air conditioning, almost unimagined comforts in those times. It was also close to the sea. Today, land reclamation means the plot is several hundred meters inland from the Corniche.

On the day of the party, "the morning was spent blowing up balloons and doing last minute preparations," Mrs Hillyard wrote. Later the driver of one of the oil company's Commer lorries drove to the centre of town "where he beat on one of the wheel hubs with a tyre jack and shouted 'Deborah's Christmas, Deborah's Christmas'. When the lorry could hold no more, about 80 at a guess, it began its slow trundle behind the palm trees at the back of the town, where the going was slightly firmer, towards our house."

Soon the desert around the house was thick with children, perhaps as many as 200. The film shows a version of the game Grandmother's Footsteps, with Deborah in her best pink party dress as the centre of attention.

In her diary, Mrs Hillyard noted that Deborah "has done very well with presents, the boys had fashioned a helicopter and a silk dress from Old John [a company servant], cream silk with tallis work." At the end, the children were given a balloon or lollipop to take home.

Half a century later, Deborah still recalls her Abu Dhabi birthdays, with one of her earliest memories at the age of 3 "in a pink flouncy dress" playing pass the parcel "in a large circle on the floor of the dining room."

Her mother now lives in the United Kingdom but is still remembered by many in Abu Dhabi. It was Sheikh Zayed who encouraged her to write the memoir.

Deborah recalls a visit back to the city with her mother in 2007. She was greeted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education, with whom she had played as a child.

"Sheikh Nahyan asked me what I wanted to do, and feeling the Abu Dhabi sand underfoot and between my toes was one of them," she recalls.

Mrs Hillyard's diary entry from December 21, 1957 notes that the children "all shouted 'Eidcum Mubarak ya Deborah'." As the lorry load of guests departed, her daughter turned to her mother and asked plaintively, "But where are all my dear friends going?"

The answer is that they are all still here.