Bayt Al Jenaibi is a house of many distinctions, some easier to prove than others. Continuously occupied since at least 1969, this modest, single-storey dwelling is almost certainly the oldest inhabited home in Abu Dhabi city.
It is also one of the most cherished. The flags, lanterns, and woven hand fans that adorn its freshly painted walls speak of Salima Ali Al Farsi’s love for her home, as does the fact that she makes a 90 kilometre round-trip to return to it every day, despite having a perfectly good modern home in the Abu Dhabi suburb of Al Shamkha.
What is beyond doubt is that, just like the seven other dwellings that surround it, Bayt Al Jenaibi is one of the capital’s most forgotten houses, tucked away behind Mina Zayed’s pet souq, Mina Fire Department and the Indian Social & Cultural Centre. According to Mrs Al Farsi, 55, even her former neighbours are surprised to discover that their old homes still exist.
“It’s like these houses are invisible in this area,” explains Khulood Al Jenaibi, Mrs Al Farsi’s eldest daughter. “Even the taxi drivers don’t know about this place.”
“Some people think that all local people live in palaces and huge villas,” says Ahmed, 32, Khulood’s younger brother and Mr Al Farsi’s eldest son. “Sometimes when we come here by taxi the drivers say ‘Are you sure that you are local people? How come you live here in a small house like this?’”
Mrs Al Farsi has her former husband to thank for the concrete, single-storey dwelling that she still insists is home. In 1971, the house came with Mr Al Jenaibi’s job. Of all Mrs Al Farsi’s seven children, Khulood had done most to try to record the history of the house. “These houses were built for the managers who were working in the power station in around 1968 or 1969,” she explains.
“The power station was built by the British to supply water and electricity for Abu Dhabi, but when the UAE was established, the British handed the power station to the UAE government. That’s when my father started working for the Water and Electricity Department. He became the maintenance manager for the power station.”
When Mr Al Jenaibi first moved into his house, the giant storage tanks and chimneys of what was to become the Baynunah Power Company used to dominate the narrow isthmus that separated Mina Zayed from Abu Dhabi’s city central Tourist Club area.
An early aerial photograph, taken by the French photographer Alain Saint-Hilaire in 1975, shows the houses when they were pristine. They are dwarfed by the enormous power plant on one side but a pre-Corniche beach is only a short walk away on the other. Neither remain and the empty sands that now surround Bayt Al Jenaibi await redevelopment. In the evenings the area is used as a temporary car park.
Mrs Al Farsi was 19 when she left her home in Sur, Oman, and came to live in the house with her husband. Despite the presence of her husband’s parents and his sisters, it was the first house she was able to call her own. It still is.
“I love the freedom here, the sound of the birds, the quietness, the air in this house, the smell of this house,” she explains. “Life here is precious for me. My children were born here, they grew up here, my family still gather here. I’ve tried to live somewhere else but I cannot. When I am here I feel more relaxed.”
Mrs Al Farsi and her seven children moved to their new home in Al Shamkha in 2008, but thanks to the help of her youngest and eldest daughters, she returns to her original home early each morning and returns to Abu Dhabi’s suburbs late each night. All her children understand that if they want to see their mother happy, it’s a journey that they have to make as well.
Hareb, 23, is Mrs Al Farsi’s youngest son. He is married and works for Emirates Aluminium in Al Taweelah. “If I get home from work at six or five-thirty I won’t find my mother at our other house, but if I call mum at nine or 10 o’clock she will be here, so I go and buy some food and then I come here with my wife and we all have dinner.”
“My mother loves this place,” Khulood Al Jenaibi explains. “All of her life stories, her happiness and her sadness happened between these walls. She returns because she cannot forget it.”
If her memories are important, Mrs Al Farsi also has more practical reasons for returning to her home in Al Mina each day.
“This house is in the city and here my mother can walk wherever she wants to go, to the grocery behind us or to the Corniche, but in Shamkha she cannot go anywhere,” says her son, Ahmed. “The markets are a way from us there and there are only houses close by.”
Despite the daily commute and their new home in Al Shamkha, Mrs Al Farsi and her children still live life very much as they always have, together. The eldest, Ahmed, who now has a family of his own, is the only one of his seven brothers and sisters who has tried to move away.
“I had a flat here in Abu Dhabi, on Najda Street. I paid for one year, but I just stayed for one or two weeks and then I had to move back. Even though I was living there with my wife and my children it felt like I was living alone,” the father of four explains. “I like to live with my family. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I like to see everyone. We discuss things about life.”
Ahmed’s younger sister, Bushra, 30, works in human resources for the Abu Dhabi State Audit Institution by day and studies each night. This means she sees less of her mother and family than she would like, but this only makes the bonds that bind the family even more important to her.
“We have to live together. We cannot live without each other. We grew up together. We slept in the same room, seven of us. Now we are adults we have different rooms but we have to be in the same place,” she explains.
“If someone is sad, everyone will be affected. We all support each other, we are all together, and we accept each other’s advice but our mother always has the final decision. We cannot do anything without taking her suggestions or advice. All of us are the same.”
That sameness extends to the old house where the few changes the family have made are largely internal and cosmetic.
“The first house had three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. There was a hole between the living room and the kitchen and all the rooms were small, that’s how we knew the house was European style,” Mrs Al Farsi explains. “Even the decoration was European.”
Apart from the addition of an extra majlis, an external kitchen and a coat of orange paint, this makes the Bayt Al Jenaibi one of Abu Dhabi’s most exciting architectural rarities, a time capsule that transports the visitor almost 50 years into the past. It is a journey that few other buildings in the capital offer, a fact that Khulood Al Jenaibi appreciates.
“Ours is not the only story like this in Abu Dhabi, you will find others, but in Abu Dhabi nobody still has old houses from 40 or 50 years ago that they have kept the same. People may have the land, but they demolish the house and build modern villas, but still we need our old houses. They have memories and stories and they help tell us how life was and how it is now.”
While the capital and life in it has been transformed around it, life within the Bayt Al Jenaibi has also remained largely the same. As the family gathers for our interview in the main majlis, the noise of Mrs Al Farsi’s pets — goats, ducks and chickens — filters in from the garden outside along with the playground sounds of her four grandchildren. Like her children, the matriarch of the Jneibi family beams as she hears the sounds.
Despite her visceral attachment to her home, Mrs Al Farsi remains philosophical about the future.
“You cannot live a modern life all the time. Even if the government gave us a palace I wouldn’t leave this house, but if the sheikhs ask us to move I would not mind. It is normal that Abu Dhabi should change. This is life. There is the past, the present and the future. It has to change and I accept that.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National