Secrets of the inside story from UAE reporters

Sometimes the story behind the story can be just as interesting as what appears in print. In this second part of our look back at 2014, the Focus team reveals just what it takes to bring you the news.

Sugumar John Ratnam, known to his pupils as Sensei John, leads a class at the Zanshinkan dojo (formerly the Aikido Club Dubai) in the Karate Centre Dubai. Clint McLean for The National
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Sometimes the story behind the story can be just as interesting as what appears in print. In this second part of our look back at 2014, the Focus team reveals just what it takes to bring you the news.


"If you want the story, you better be up to the challenge," teased one of the Emirati firemen when I showed up to do a story on an Emirati policewomen who ended up being the first Arab and Khaleeji women to compete in an international firefighting championship.

They were heroes and truly on fire. I ended up having even more respect for what they accomplished when I tried my hand at some of the tasks.

I have to admit that, until then, I thought I was a pretty fit person who enjoyed challenges. This was a story where my editor teased that I might find my “Prince Charming”. After all, isn’t a heroic manly fireman who can save the day any woman’s dream?

Needless to say, I can say I probably never looked more ridiculous than stumbling about in a firefighting uniform weighing over 16kg, tripping and crushed by a 20kg human dummy I was supposed to rescue. I squirmed under it until rescued by the female firefighters. At least the group of firefighters watching me clapped and gave me an encouraging thumbs up – despite my utter failure. Real team spirit among all the firefighters from around the world.

With the weather hot and murky, my hair fizzed up to the point I looked like a lion, and add to it smudged eye khol, so you can imagine I looked very dishevelled.

Of course that would be when I bumped into one of the most handsome men I have ever seen.

Yes, life can truly be quite unfair.

* Rym Ghazal


As an expatriate journalist, an outsider, it can be difficult to tap into local knowledge, history and memories.

For The National's fifth History Project, the subject was women. I pitched a story on childbirth and maternal health in the 1950s and 1960s, before there were any modern hospitals.

The women I decided to speak to worked on traditional handicrafts at Abu Dhabi’s National Theatre, just around the corner from our office. They spoke only a few words of English, and I speak barely a few words of Arabic, no more than the basic pleasantries. In the seven years I have worked as a reporter here I have never let the language, or lack thereof, stand in the way of getting the story.

In asking women questions about what is probably the most personal time of their lives, the lack of language worried me.

But it was important to me that I spoke to these women in particular. They were from around the country, Fujairah, Liwa and Abu Dhabi, and I knew would all have different experiences.

Thankfully, I had the help of an amazing young woman, Khadeeja Alshehhi, who works at the National Theatre.

So through her, and over two days of drinking tea, eating dates and sharing stories, the women shared more details with me than I could have imagined.

They did not have any of the prejudices people can sometimes have about nosy foreigners asking personal questions. They were more than happy to give me as much detail as possible.

At one point one of the women was rolling on the floor showing me the position she found most comfy to labour.

In my final hours with them the conversation changed and the questions were directed in my direction. Was I married? What did my husband do? Did I have children? Why not? Did I need them to help me?

“You asked us all the questions,” Khadeeja translated as the women rolled over laughing behind her. “Now it’s our turn to ask you the questions. And bring your husband here, we want to meet him.”

* Mitya Underwood

Martial arts

In my adolescent years, I became obsessed with classic Hong Kong cinema. I would devour every film I could, from Fearless Hyena to Iron Fisted Monk.

I soon became a significant financier of the Video HI-Fi VHS rental shop in Dubai; constantly borrowing, and subsequently wearing out, its unrivalled range of martial arts videos.

Just as Jackie Chan delivered yet another fatal blow to the ever-elderly James Tien, I would jump out of my chair, fists swinging, rip out a garden cane to use as a staff and accidentally hit myself on the head.

While I always knew I would one day need to take up more formalised martial arts training, it was not until adulthood that I discovered aikido – which I immediately recognised was the martial art for me.

It took a few more years for me to find the time and discipline to enrol at a dojo, but I soon found that it brought much harmony into my life. Learning from Sensei John Ratnam has proved to be a profound experience, and shortly after I began, I knew I wanted to share the story of his dojo.

The neurotic part of me began to worry that if I suggested it too soon, the dojo would assume that my motives were disingenuous – a problem compounded by my erratic schedule.

After enough time passed, I put forward the idea for a feature in The National, and it ended up being one of the pieces I am most proud of. Not only for the sheer amount of information contained, but because I knew I was sharing a philosophy that could greatly benefit a lot of people living in the UAE.

It takes much patience and dedication to progress in aikido, a very technical martial art, but watching yourself bloom – both as a martial artist and a person – is a wonderful feeling.

* Hareth Al Bustani


People often assume that I am obsessed with old buildings, but they interest me less than the stories behind them and the lessons they contain.

In February I visited Al Ain's Al Jahili Fort to report on the reconstruction of a gate that had disappeared from history, but it was a chance remark by an interviewee that really fired my interest.

Apparently, the team behind the gate’s reconstruction included members of a family who had not only worked in Al Ain for generations but were also involved in the construction of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn.

The rumour proved true. Abdul Rahman and Mohammed Saleh Qayed now work as master craftsmen for the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority using skills passed through generations of a family whose story is inseparable from the architectural history of the emirate.

Salima Ali Al Farsi’s story is quite different because her family’s recent history is intimately connected with a single house.

Few buildings speak to the Emirati experience of modernisation and urbanisation as eloquently as the Bayt Al Jenaibi, Mrs Al Farsi's home since 1971. But the fact that her house remains, despite repeated threats of demolition, is testament to the love Mrs Al Farsi feels for her home.

In its own way, the Bayt Al Jenaibi is as much a monument as any of Abu Dhabi’s forts and palaces and I feel privileged to have witnessed the cherished family life that still fills its precincts.

Long may it stand.

* Nick Leech


What do you do when you struggle to find an angle for an article? Simply look for stories. Stories help make a great start.

In October, I was assigned to write a piece about the First National Traditional Handicraft Festival in Souq Al Qattara, held in the heart of Al Ain. The festival aimed at promoting entrepreneurs and to enable them to showcase their artistic talents before a wider audience.

I set out in the evening for Al Ain, but hoping on my way that the festival would have more than the same repetitive themes – like traditional food, dress and dance.

At the entrance, from afar, I could see traditional music and dance. Soon there was the smell of crunchy sweet luqaimat dumplings wafting to my nostrils. I took a deep breath and began to look for people to interview. After spending three hours strolling through shops and interviewing, finding a new story seemed impossible.

Walking to my car, a picture suddenly stopped me in my tracks. It was of an Emirati woman making Arabian bread.

The shop owner, Maryam Al Mansoori, had hung the portrait to decorate her small kiosk. It had a sentimental value, Mrs Al Mansoori said. But when I asked if she would sell it to me, after much thought, she said: “Yes.”

The anonymous exceptional customer in the article who went to the festival and came home with something unexpected, was actually the author herself.

* Asmaa Al Hameli