x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A photo odyssey in Fujairah

Driven from his native India, Javed Qureshi landed in Fujairah and began what has become a 35-year adventure as Sheikh Hamad's personal photographer.

When he arrived in the UAE 35 years ago looking for a job, little did Javed Qureshi know that toying with a camera would see him become the personal photographer of an Emirati ruler.

"I told His Highness I know everything there is to know about film and cameras," said Mr Qureshi, casting his mind back to 1974 when he first met the then new Ruler of Fujairah, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed, who was appointed just three months prior to the meeting. That statement, while slightly embellished (in fact, Mr Qureshi had hardly any experience with photography), landed him a job as the personal photographer of the sheikh and his family, and more than three decades of visual archives documenting the great changes in Fujairah, as well special events in Sheikh Hamad's life.

Dressed in a kandura and a white Omani head garment that "hides" his baldness, Mr Qureshi smiled as he said: "I know I might have exaggerated my credentials at that time as I had no formal training and not much experience, but I know myself and I know that I am a quick learner and that if I am asked to bring a piece of the moon by midnight, I will find a way to do it." Born in 1943 in what is now Pakistan, Mr Qureshi is related to famous Bollywood stars such as Meena Kumari, his aunt, of whom he took many photos before her death in 1972. But his only "experience" with film before arriving in the UAE was as an actor in several black and white Bollywood movies in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Sindhoor.

"I was born into a family of film, and so I was familiar with all types of cameras since my childhood," he said. "I was just on the receiving end, so I quickly learnt how to use the camera and how to even process film and develop it all within a few days." Sheikh Hamad, then in his 20s, gave the 32-year-old arrival from Bombay a chance. Mr Qureshi, now 66, is still taking photos of the official events and visits to the royal palace in Fujairah as well as the private and more personal events in the Royal Family's life.

"People assumed I was a professional photographer as I was always seen with a camera around my neck," Mr Qureshi said. "But I rarely used it until I came here." A film production manager at 18, Mr Qureshi hoped to continue his career in the Indian film industry. However, when he, a Sunni, fell in love with and wed Shiite girl, his family disapproved of the "love marriage" and cast him out. Jobless, he eventually made his way to the "promised" land of the UAE.

He had friends here who helped him get an interview at the Information Ministry in Abu Dhabi and, within days, officials at the ministry decided to send Mr Qureshi to Fujairah and try him out as a photographer for official events for the government news agency. "After five hours of driving up and down on unpaved roads, I remember arriving at a place that had just four or five buildings, mainly owned by banks, a palace, and traditional homes here and there," he said.

"Coming from India, I had rarely seen such a deserted place in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing here - you don't understand, a patch of shrubs and grass was called a national park." Mr Qureshi said he was nervous for his audience with Sheikh Hamad but the Ruler's "down to earth" demeanour helped put him at ease. "He was kind and listened to me and gave me many chances to prove myself as a photographer," he said. "In a way, His Highness and I were both new on the job, and in some ways that helped bring us closer together."

In a storage room, where hundreds of boxes of negatives and prints lay on top of each other, forgotten under layers of dust, Mr Qureshi struggled to find old photos of Fujairah. "People rarely ask me about photos showing how Fujairah was in the beginning as people like the new and modern things and don't want to remember how it was in the beginning," he said as he dug deep into the boxes. Among his archives are photos of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, on his two official visits to Fujairah and sitting with Sheikh Hamad.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the current President of the UAE, visited Fujairah frequently before he succeeded his father. The late Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, is seen on the site of the Dibba motorway as it was being constructed. He was always punctual, Mr Qureshi said. "We were told that Sheikh Rashid will be there at 6am, and there he was, right on time, not a minute late," he said. One of Mr Qureshi's memorable photos was taken when the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, arrived in Fujairah on his steamer. "It was such a great moment for me as I like ships," he said.

Mr Qureshi's camera was also witness to the developmental and social changes in the emirate. "Before, everyone knew each other, and the same fishermen that were poor and humble in 1980s are now the richest people in Fujairah, with each owning over 20 to 30 hired fishermen to fish for them," he said. Mr Qureshi's fondest photo is that of Sheikh Hamad and his family attending one of the children's graduation.

"The camera captured their happiness and their closeness to each other," he said, adding that he is the only person allowed to take personal photos of the Royal Family, including the sheikhas, as he has become part of the family. "I have taken photos of His Highness's children in the crib," he said, "and watched them grow over the years into adults. I have taken photos of all their birthdays and now I am taking photos of their weddings."

Mr Qureshi lives in a three-bedroom villa that Sheikh Hamad had built for him. He has received watches and other gifts over the years from people wanting copies of their photo with the Ruler, or from the Ruler himself, but Mr Qureshi continues to wait for a very special gift. "I have asked for the citizenship, as UAE is my home now, and I want to stay here forever," he said. "I am so glad I came to Fujairah, for if I stayed anywhere else, there would have been a hundred Javeds. Here, there is only one."

rghazal@thenational.ae