As he sits in the majlis of his modern suburban villa, Thani Al Remaithi tells stories that transport his daughter, Fatima, and her professor, the Zayed University archaeologist Dr Tim Power, to the years when he lived a very different life on the “island of happiness” the world now knows as Saadiyat.
The most striking thing about Al Remaithi’s recollections are not his powers of recall, which are considerable, but the light they shine on the very different and half-forgotten world of the not-so-distant past.
Al Remaithi spent the first 22 years of his life living with his mother, grandparents and seven siblings in one of 20 houses that then formed the island’s only community, the now-disappeared Sha’biyat Al Saadiyat.
Established in the 1960s as little more than a cluster of fishermen’s huts, the Sha’biyat was established soon after Al Remaithi’s birth, when the original hamlet was replaced by a series of single-storey concrete houses as part of a campaign to provide the first generation of UAE citizens with modern, ‘Sha’bi’ – or folk – housing.
Despite the immediate architectural improvement, life on Saadiyat in the 1970s continued to be defined by the absence of essential amenities. Food, for example, still came directly from the sea or had to be imported from Abu Dhabi, a short boat ride away across the turquoise waters that form the creek known as the Khor Laffan.
“There was no petrol, no electricity and no water,” says the 44-year-old, remembering an island whose solitary well contained brackish water fit only for camels, 500 of which were kept on a small farm, or ezba, in the heart of the island.
“My mother and grandmother would go to Abu Dhabi to get food and [drinking] water and I would go with them, but nobody used too much [water] because we would clean our clothes and wash in the sea,” says Al Remaithi, remembering a life that, despite its hardships, he still cherishes.
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