x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Celebrations mark return of RAK's beloved nurse

An English woman who spread kindness and good health to the residents of Ras Al Khaimah in the early years is celebrated upon her return.

Habus men, including Rashed Mohammed, second from right, perform the nadbah, a traditional war cry now reserved for ceremonies, during a welcoming reception for Ruth Ash. Jaime Puebla/The National
Habus men, including Rashed Mohammed, second from right, perform the nadbah, a traditional war cry now reserved for ceremonies, during a welcoming reception for Ruth Ash. Jaime Puebla/The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Amid celebratory rifle fire and drumming, a diminutive English woman in her late 70s sat on a gilded chair at the centre of a great tent as men of all ages clamoured to be photographed with her.

Young men wore their best silver khanjar daggers, old men carried heirloom swords and bandoliers that still fitted their waists after half a century. Each was dressed in his best for the English nurse.

"Do I remember her? Of course I remember her," said Mohammed Yahmoor, a man in his 40s. "She cut my cord. Of course I remember her."

"She injected my mother," boasted another.

Hundreds attended this week's celebrations in Ras Al Khaimah city in honour of Ruth Ash, the English woman who had worked as the nurse here from 1966 until 1971 and who was returning for the first time since the 1970s.

Mrs Ash, nee Willis, set up the emirate's first modern hospital and travelled by Land Rover to outlying communities under the protection of tribal sheikhs to fight polio, cholera and malnutrition.

"She was like a mother to us," Mr Yahmoor said. "We are very happy and very proud when she comes to us."

Mrs Ash did not intend to return to the wadis as a celebrity, and she did not come alone. She travelled in Ras Al Khaimah this week with other Britons who lived here in the 1960s, shortly before the country's unification. They included Col David Neild, the first commander of the Ras Al Khaimah mobile force, and Margaret McKay, whose husband introduced the region's first dairy cows.

Their visit was a gift from Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, who knew Mrs Ash as a child.

The British visitors were welcomed with the nadbah war cry of the mountain tribes.

Some 35 years earlier Mrs Ash had married an Englishman at a celebration much like this one.

She first arrived in August 1966 from Aden to "fix up" Ras Al Khaimah's only hospital. The men's ward was "just a dump for old furniture", she said. The labour ward was a "rusty old operating table which was slightly skewed and a very elegant tea tray". It had a pair of scissors, a pair of forceps and a primus stove. The outpatient room was a desk covered in pills. The examination room had three blunt syringes that were used for everyone. That was it.

An Oxford-trained nurse for the British government, Mrs Ash made an inventory list "which took about five seconds flat". Supplies from Dubai arrived a few hours later in two Land Rovers.

She was renamed in her first week by the ruler's father, Sheikh Mohammed, when he arrived at the hospital for treatment. "They said my name was Miss Willis and he said: 'Miss Willis, that doesn't sound right'. And he said my name's Mariam and that's how I came to be Mariam."

Her staff were a midwife named Salma al Sharhan, "quite illiterate but an absolute wealth of information - I would have never ever got anywhere without her"; the dispenser Mohammed Rafi - "the passer out of pills" - a mechanic named Hashmi, and another doctor "who was supposed to be full time but he used to take five-day weekends".

Mrs Ash was later joined by two Iranian sisters, Behaira and Fuzana, and another English nurse named Deirdre Fuller.

They lived in a compound with two breeze block houses. Palm frond huts were set up for isolation patients and children stayed with Mariam and Deirdre. "Between us we had half a dozen all the time," said Mrs Ash.

After six months at the hospital, she began weekly visits to the north-coast village of Sha'am to immunise school children. Soon, a man volunteered his palm frond hut to serve as the village clinic. In this way, women could be treated discretely.

"They were quite interested in it and they all wanted to go and when I offered antenatal clinics they could go without having anything wrong with them and that was wonderful," she said. "That was a day out."

A smallpox outbreak opened her relationship with remote communities, as she rushed to vaccinate the emirate's population. She formed a strong friendship with the Habus tribe of Wadi Al Baih and the families of Idhen and Al Ghail under the invitation of Ali Muttawa, a religious leader who had two wives in Idhen and one in Al Ghail.

Tuberculosis was rampant. Mrs Ash alternated visits between Idhen and Al Ghail, a 90-minute journey from Ras Al Khaimah in the Land Rover given to her by Sheikh Saqr.

She was guided through Wadi Al Baih and its surrounding mountains by Yamoor and Shaiban, sheikhs of the Habus mountain tribe.

"I think I was a bit frightened of Shaiban to start with because he looked rather fierce but he had such a lovely smile," Mrs Ash said.

With their blessing, she was greeted with open arms. At one home near the wadi entrance, the family would light fires to cook bread each time her Land Rover pulled into sight.

Sheikh Yamoor's father became a hospital regular. "They were so fascinated. It was a day out, it was something to do and some of the older men, particularly Yamoor's father, he used to come every day. He'd just come for a chat and he always found something wrong with him, like a sore knee or an aching finger. It was a very relaxed place."

Sheikh Yamoor's brother Shames, a traditional healer, presented Mariam with a set of iron sticks so that she should could cure others as he did, with a hot rod.

"He said: 'You can't operate without one of these'."

Her mobile clinic was a tin trunk packed with vitamins, scales, a blood pressure machine, a stethoscope and a paraffin stove.

Clad in her white nurse's coat and cap, she dispensed advice, folic acid, malaria pills and Winter Green "for the old men to rub into their knees. It was a very smelly ointment - the smellier the better, you know."

Diarrhoea and malaria were common. To counter malnutrition, Mrs Ash taught mothers to wean their children three months before the next baby was due to arrive.

"I couldn't tell them how to rear the children if I didn't know how they lived," she said. "For instance, little babies were put in cradles made of goat skin with a hole in it and a tin of sand underneath but I wouldn't have known about that if I hadn't seen it." The goat skins and sand were used in lieu of nappies.

"Mostly they were absolutely delighted to meet me." Most, but not everyone. Mrs Ash survived at least two assassination attempts. On one occasion a man tried to shoot her. On another, a man rushed at her with a knife.

"But I mean it was just old men who didn't want new things happening, just usually to do with smallpox vaccinations, something of that nature," she said. "The women and most of the men were fine but some of the older men sort of felt it was against their religion. I mean you get it in any country.

"I never got involved with anything political, I was strictly there to look at them if they were sick."

This is remembered by the residents of Ras Al Khaimah. "We had no doubts. We trusted them," said Rashed Mohammed, a man in his 60s who was at Mariam's wadi celebration. "She made a friendship with all the tribes and she used to visit them all. Our fathers told us the story about the British. Those younger than us didn't meet them but the story goes on."

Mrs Ash left for Oman in 1971, where she helped set up that country's first modern health care facilities after Sultan Qaboos came to power.

She returned to Ras Al Khaimah in 1977 to marry her former neighbour, Tim Ash. Mr Ash had served with the Trucial Oman Scouts, the regional militia who built trust between people before the country's unification.

In 1979, the original six-bed ward was replaced by a modern 60-bed hospital later renamed Saif Obaidullah Hospital.

Mr and Mrs Ash stayed closely connected to the emirate, despite decades spent overseas. Emiratis who studied in the UK and elderly tribesmen on medical visits could always find a piece of Ras Al Khaimah at the Ash household in England, where the couple would chat to them in their local Arabic.

When Mrs Ash returned this week, for the first time since the 1970s, invitations to mountain farms and palaces flooded in. At night, tribesmen would walk into the polished lobby of her hotel and ask for "Doctora Mariam". She would sit in the lobby and chat to them in their mountain Arabic, about what she and her husband did for them.

"I still can't get over the fact that I'm still welcome here," she said.

One night, a man dropped off a truckload of fresh bread and honey to be delivered to each of the hotel guests' rooms. The gifts teetered precariously on the hotel luggage trolley.

"You can say she's a mercy from God," said Yamoor Hamdan, 31, a nephew of the sheikh who welcomed Mariam. "She and her husband, they served us too much."

Now, their legacy is remembered by the next generation.

azacharias@thenational.ae