In the autumn of 1986, one man was given a task of immense national and historic weight. He had three days to write the words to the UAE’s national anthem, originally conceived as an instrumental by an Egyptian composer, Saad Abdel Wahab, in 1971.
“I kept replaying the music of the anthem over and over again, waiting for the words to come to my mind,” recalls Dr Aref Al Sheikh, 61, from Dubai.
A poet, scholar, columnist and imam with expertise of Sharia and who also gave Friday sermons, he was commissioned by the Acting Minister of Education, Ahmed Humaid Al Tayyer, to address the lack of lyrics with words of his choice.
At the time, Dr Al Sheikh was working in the examination department of the Ministry of Education and he remembers how overwhelmed and stressed he was by the task. He sat at home listening to a tape of the music, rewinding it more than 60 times on his small cassette player.
As a conservative and devout imam, Dr Al Sheikh did not listen to music in general. One of the only radios at home belonged to his parents, an old tube radio from Siemens that was manufactured in the 1950s.
“Usually, the words are written first and then the music is composed to capture and embody the meaning of the words,” he says. “Working in reverse was very difficult.”
Then, after three gruelling hours of sitting and listening, forgetting even to eat lunch, the words came upon him like a “vision”.
“Ishy (live) was the word that materialised itself and the rest just came out flowing,” he says.
Using a pencil, he noted down in one go the words as they came to him.
“Live my country, the unity of our emirates lives; You have lived for a nation; Whose religion is Islam and guide is Quran; I made you stronger in Allah’s name, oh homeland; My county, my country, my country, my country.”
Dr Al Sheikh took his words to his wife, Umm Khalid, and sang to her the full national anthem as he envisioned it.
“When she said she liked it and, ‘It doesn’t need anything more than these words’, I felt more at ease and more confident about my lyrics,” says Dr Al Sheikh, a father of four boys and two girls.
He was at the minister’s office early next morning with his words and a tape of him singing the lyrics – words that today, every Emirati knows by heart.
“You can’t imagine how beautiful and amazing it feels to be part of history and to remember you had a role in the words every time you hear the national anthem sung by its citizens,” he says.
That same day, the minister took the tape to a Cabinet meeting. At about 1pm, he called Dr Al Sheikh with the good news that the lyrics had been approved.
Within hours, the words were photocopied and distributed to teachers, schools, social clubs, police stations, and government buildings.
Over the next few days, whenever the national anthem was played on radio and on TV with the flag, the words rang out too.
As the UAE celebrates the 42nd anniversary of its foundation on December 2, 1971, the man behind the lyrics for Ishy Biladi (Long Live My Nation) says he would not change a single word.
“The words ended up embodying all the values of this nation, like unity, Islam, integrity, Arabness, sacrifices, and pride, and it all came about naturally,” he says.
“I don’t think I actually sat and said, ‘I want this and that point’, these words just felt right.”
After working at the Ministry of Education for 26 years, Dr Al Sheikh moved to Dubai Courts, where he now works as a family counsellor and advisor on relationships.
He is a prolific writer, with more than 65 books published, many on historical aspects of the UAE, including the history of health care, justice, media, and Kuwait’s role in the region.
He also became a detective of history, always digging for old photos in people’s homes, taking notes from the elders and even travelling across the region to interview those who played a role in the formation of the UAE.
“I love history and I find it my duty to document whatever I can for the future generation,” he says.
Hunting down doctors who worked here in the early 1960s as part of a Kuwaiti gift to the then Trucial states, Dr Al Sheikh recalls amusing stories such as the tale of an Indian doctor in the 1950s who was accused of harbouring djinn at his house.
“He had a radio, and some of the people in his neighbourhood would watch him sit outside his house with this magic box filled with voices and so complained about him to one of the religious sheikhs in the area,” he says.
“These are the kind of stories that would never have seen the light of day unless someone went after them.”
When not documenting the past, Dr Al Sheikh composes poetry and prose, dedicating one book to his wife for always standing by his side.
His work is sometimes a little unorthodox, using poetry as a problem-solving device. Back in the 1990s when his newly acquired fax, a gift from Xerox, broke down, he wrote an eloquent poem entitled To Xerox My Love and faxed it to the head of the company.
“The fax machine was just a few months old. I wanted them to fix it for me as soon as they could and thought if I wrote them a nice poem, they would do it,” he says.
Within a few days a new fax machine had arrived.
Wherever Dr Al Sheikh goes, whether it is a majlis or a public gathering, he gets introduced as the man behind the Nasheed Al Watani, the national anthem.
“I feel like I am reborn each time,” he says.
But while the words of the anthem were approved by the Government, the anthem still does not carry an official stamp. It was made obligatory at schools across the country at their morning assembly over the past decade.
However, there is one thing that Dr Al Sheikh has noticed that he hopes will be addressed.
“What bothers me is that I see some Emiratis feel shy to sing along out loud, and instead mouth it or simply remain silent as the recorded version is played in the background,” he says, adding that the Rulers and Sheikhs of the country sing it, as do children.
“The national anthem should be sang proudly, strongly and from the heart.”