x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A class act in UAE photography

Sheikha Jasem Al Suwaidi may not have enjoyed the benefits of a formal education, but the 80-year-old has earned her place in the nation's history books as the first female photographer.

Sheikha Jasem recounts tales and speaks about education during the 1930s in Dubai. Sheikha was the first Emirati photographer.
Sheikha Jasem recounts tales and speaks about education during the 1930s in Dubai. Sheikha was the first Emirati photographer.

DUBAI // Sheikha Jasem Al Suwaidi may not have enjoyed the benefits of a formal education, but the 80-year-old has earned her place in the nation's history books as the first female photographer.

Born in the 1930s, she did not have access to the schooling options now on offer to Emirati citizens.

"You had two choices for schooling in my day: either you went to the Mutawa'ah [a pious woman] to memorise the Quran, or you went to another Mutawa'ah who taught you to read and write and memorise the Quran," said Mrs Al Suwaidi, a grandmother of 27.

"I went to Mutawa'ah Halimah. She would have all the girls sit around her. She would say a verse of Quran and have everyone repeat after her. After a few times she would leave and tell us to have that verse memorised by the time she comes back, which was a just a few minutes. Then she'd come back with a stick."

Her father was a hard-working pearl diver who went out to sea for three months at a time to put food on the table.

"He was a well-respected diver, a good earner, they gave him the largest diyeen [diving basket] because they knew he was good enough to fill it with clams," she said.

Her brother was 7 when her father started taking him pearling. "He had to learn the trade firsthand, that was his schooling. Once he became skilled enough he was sent out on shorter trips, about a week, on his own. You had to have a skill to survive in those days, or you would be a burden to your family. The only way was to learn from your father and brothers."

It was not until Mrs Al Suwaidi's own children started going to school in the 1970s that she decided to pursue a formal education.

"I really felt bad when my children asked me to help them with their homework and I couldn't do anything for them," she said. "I went to one of the government literacy centres, and they put me in a class with about 15 other women. I was very excited to finally be able to go to school. I felt like a little girl again."

Mrs Al Suwaidi was a quick student and was always in the top five in her class.

"I managed to complete the second grade, but when we got to grade three they started teaching us English. Here I was, an old woman, and I was expected to start speaking in another language. That just scared me away from school," she laughed.

But the skill Mrs Al Suwaidi will be remembered for was not one she learnt in school. In the 1950s, she asked a photographer to teach her how to use a camera and develop her own film. That initiative earned her a place in the history books as the first female Emirati photographer.

In 2010, her pictures caught the eye of Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed. They were published in a book with other old photos of Dubai that year, and she received the Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed Award for Photography.

Her work has since been displayed at many exhibits and earned her awards from around the country.

She also received an award from Sheikha Aisha Al Qasimi at the World Women's Day conference, and recognition from the Organisation for Arab Photographers.

These days, Mrs Al Suwaidi spends most of her time doing arts and crafts. She likes to make things that remind her of the old days: a clay model of a fort, a model of a pearling dhow, miniature copies of old toys and tools she used to own.

She wants to be sure her grandchildren know where they came from, who her father and mother were, and how they struggled to survive.

"Life is far too easy these days. People tend to take things for granted," she said. "Today you can do anything you want, everything you need is available. Except time, there is never enough of that."

 

malkhan@thenational.ae