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The founding President was a man of his people, and those privileged enough to meet him carry the memories through their lives. Now the National Media Council has declared the 19th day of Ramadan every year will be devoted to remembering his life.
The founding President was a man of his people, and those privileged enough to meet him carry the memories through their lives. Now the National Media Council has declared the 19th day of Ramadan every year will be devoted to remembering his life.

A day to remember Sheikh Zayed

UAE residents discuss the legacy of the nation's founder, Sheikh Zayed.

Sheikh Zayed is often credited with giving life to the country, but Ahmad Arshi remembers the time the founding President of the UAE did the same for him.

"I had a hole in my heart [at birth] and back then my father's salary was Dh2,000 only, so he couldn't pay for my treatment," says Mr Arshi, 33, a film-maker and novelist.

"So he went to Sheikh Zayed directly and asked him for help. Without hesitation he paid for my surgery in London."

A few years later little Ahmad, then a healthy 4-year-old, got to meet the sheikh face to face, although it was a chance meeting.

"I had a costume party in kindergarten and my mother dressed me as a sheikh," he says. "So we waited for a taxi in Tourist Club Area."

Then a Mercedes stopped in front of them and Sheikh Zayed stepped out.

"Where are you going, you sheikh?" the President asked him.

"He then took me on his lap and chatted to us."

Sheikh Zayed died in 2004 on the 19th day of Ramadan, November 2. The National Media Council has declared every 19th day of Ramadan a commemoration of his life.

Many residents say that even as he united the emirates in 1971 and worked to build the fledgling nation's agricultural and educational systems, he always took time to bring a personal touch to his leadership.

Noura Al Ameri, 28, says that when her family became the first in the area to plant trees around their house, Sheikh Zayed - who fostered dreams of turning the UAE green - stopped to admire them.

"We were the first to be granted houses from Sheikh Zayed and the first to plant our garden in the area," says Ms Al Ameri, a guide and administrative assistant at a museum of Sheikh Zayed's possessions in the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.

"So when he passed by our area and saw our house, he was very impressed. So he stopped in front of it and toured the area.

"Our gardener came to us and told us what happened. It was 2pm and we were all at home, but he told us after he left."

Sheikh Zayed had a passion for falcons, building a hospital for them and training them to hunt. That passion led to the UAE becoming an international centre of falcon research.

He was also a great supporter of charity. He was popularly known as Zayed Al Khayr and Zayed Al Ataa, which meant Zayed of Charity and Zayed of Giving.

The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation continues to distribute millions of dirhams of aid each year. Sheikh Zayed also financed a wing of the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus in Baltimore.

His work in helping Palestinians in 1996 earned him a special gift: a piece of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, Ms Al Ameri says.

She says her memories of Sheikh Zayed remain as vibrant as his legacy and she often cries when she passes one of his portraits.

Ms Al Ameri says the museum evokes everything that is special about the nation's founder.

"I get goose bumps in that place," she says.

The state news agency WAM will broadcast news reports and documentaries commemorating Sheikh Zayed's life and achievements in Arabic, English and French on local and foreign media.

hdajani@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Rym Ghazal

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