‘It was a barren desert’: Emirati recounts Abu Dhabi life of the 1960s

For one Emirati who lived through the 1960s, life was often simpler, satisfying and gave more peace of mind.

Ibrahim Baqer has worked for the Abu Dhabi municipality for the past 32 years. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The capital today is one of gleaming skyscrapers, modern high-rises and air-conditioned malls.
But only a few decades ago, there was no running water, electricity or public transport.
It is a world almost unbelievable to today's generation.
But for one Emirati who lived through these times, life seemed more satisfying then.
"Abu Dhabi city was a barren desert and about 1,000 families would have lived in the city and people would have used donkeys," says Ibrahim Baqer, 55.
"No roads or street signs were here as about a thousand families lived in the city," says Mr Baqer, who has worked for the past 32 years at Abu Dhabi Municipality.
There were donkeys to cover short distances and transport wood, water and other commodities. In the desert, people used camels.
It was also a time when vital supplies would have to be brought from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi.
"In the sixties, we would hire a donkey to bring water home in big containers. We would drive when going to Dubai.
"At home, no water connections were available and we would bring water from the central water station in Al Bateen. Everybody would gather there to fill water to store in their homes."
Mr Baqer has devoted his entire life to the UAE and intends to retire in five years.
But he at times misses the simplicity, care and attachment to people that he feels has been lost in the intervening years.
"In those times in Abu Dhabi, people never interfered. But always extended a helping hand, whether it was a wedding or other celebration."
In the sixties, houses were built using mud bricks, lime, palm leaves and sticks.
"Even my house on the Corniche was made of mud and palm sticks and we lived without electricity," he says.
"Resources for the people were very limited and many did not have much money.
"We constructed our home with bricks and cement for the first time in 1971. In the eighties we got electricity and air-conditioning."
When asked how they lived in the hot summers, he says: "If you know Al Bastakiya [a neighbourhood in Dubai known for its cooling wind towers), we constructed our homes on those lines to save us from scorching hot weather."
Before unification in 1971, people even had to get a visa to visit Dubai.
"We had to obtain a visa stamp on our passports at Seih Shoeb police station on the Abu Dhabi to Dubai Road.
"Without a stamp, nobody was allowed to enter Dubai because it was a different country," he says.
He praised the late founding President, Sheikh Zayed, for unifying the emirates.
"I met Sheikh Zayed several times. He used to live in Qasr Al Hosn palace. I would have lived near the palace at the Central Market area now."
Most locals traded camels, sheep, dates, fish, spices and wood while some people had small grocery shops.
In those days, one kilogram of fish cost 20 or 25 fils, but they would give us more, he says.
"My father used to run a grocery shop and I was very young and was attending Al Falahiyyah school in Abu Dhabi. This was the first school here.
"After finishing my studies here I travelled to the United States in 1977 to study civil engineering at the University of Toledo in Ohio. I stayed five years there."
When he returned life was still hard, with limited resources and amenities and few places to unwind.
"There were only two places to unwind, the Corniche and Khalidiyah park, where we bring our children. But decades back, there was peace of mind."
anwar@thenational.ae