Al Ain, UAE….To the average North American the words “Middle East”, congers up many different visions. We have our perceptions formed by the media clips, short and sensational. Mostly we see problems, deep and long lasting problems. Yet, to the same people, the word “Dubai” , seems to wear a different mantle. Dubai creates a vision of some magical kingdom, some modern day Camelot, rising out of the sand of the desert.
Yet, there is more than just Dubai, there is the entire United Arab Emirates or U.A.E. What is different about the Emirates? Why should a person ever visit Dubai, or Abu Dhabi or Al Ain, or many other cities and communities? I have now visited the Emirates two years in a row and I became very interested in why they are so different than their neighbours. One fact for sure, in every conversation the name of one person comes up, over and over. That name is Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This man was the principal driving force behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates, the Emîr of Abu Dhabi and first Ra îs President of the United Arab Emirates, a post which he held for the lengthy period of over 33 years.
I was in Al Ain, a two hour drive away from Dubai and I was determined to visit the Al Ain Palace Museum. This place is considered to be one of the most important cultural places in Al Ain city and one of the best restored forts of the Abu Dhabi Emirate. The construction of the palace goes back to 1937 after which renovations were made by Sheikh Zayed who stayed there until 1966 when he was the ruler. My thinking was that if I could see where the man lived, I could get some sense of the man himself. It seemed reasonable to me that how a man lived , would give a great many clues.
Entrance to the palace is free and one walks through the gates of a true fortress. Once inside my very first impression was not of overpowering elegance, but rather of the elegance of simplicity. The cinnamon colored buildings are divided in private, guest and official quarters by courtyards, landscaped with cacti, magnolia and palm trees. There is a sense of calm, in the simple flow of buildings. I was surprised because power and wealth usually looks the part. I had been told frequently that Sheik Zayed was a man of the people. My initial impression was that this was indeed a truth.
Foreign quests were received in separate meetings rooms called majlis, decorated with western style furniture. Other meeting rooms were designed in the local style, for visitors from his region. History tells us that Sheikh Zayed preferred to meet tribe leaders in their own dwellings so that he could understand their needs and lives.
His love for the Bedouin lifestyle is reflected in a large tent, erected in the main court complete with the stone fire stove used for brewing the traditional Arabic coffee or gahwa. Here special guests could enjoy meals and hospitality under the open starlit sky, a Bedouin custom.
The structure of the palace is a conglomeration of courtyards connecting the total area into one complex. The buildings themselves are thick walled, as befitting a fort, so cool inside, from the heat outside. The building designs are simple, practical and verandas are arranged around secluded gardens and palm trees.
As one walks through the property one gets a feeling for the way of life , in the complex. One is transported to a different world, a world where the leader was in step with the land. This was a complete surprise to me, as I somehow expect to see the bustling life I left behind the entry gates. There is an elegance in simplicity and it slows pours over, like a soft summer rain.
Inside of the various rooms the theme of simple elegance is maintained. I had been told that it was the expressed wish of Sheikh Zayed that nothing be added to this palace, that its integrity be maintained, as it was, when he lived there.
This huge “museum” houses a large collection of material about the ruling family. Yet, noting was cluttered and everything was simple and had a function. Decorative items seemed to be at a minimum. Walking slowly from building to building, I got the impression that this was not a place where frantic activity was the norm. Rather, the palace gives off the aroma of a place of quiet reflection.
What I saw surprised me, because I did not see evidence of power, rather I saw evidence of humility and oneness with the land and his people.
The Emirates shines like a beacon of Hope in the Middle East and this was quite a Leader. To Sheikh Zayed, every citizen was treated as a family member. Every need was heard, solved, sustained.
I was reminded of a quote, attributed to him ..”Who ever has no past, has neither present, nor future”. I surely would have loved to have met and learned from this man! He was a true force!