Journalist Salim Zabbal arrived in the emirates in 1959 to document everything from local tribes digging underground water channels to red oxide miners on Abu Musa.
Rare photos of the lands that became the UAE
DUBAI //In 1959, when Salim Zabbal went out in search of forgotten villages in Kuwait for a new Arab-language magazine, he encountered a group of men who spoke of their "tough life" back home in their sheikhdoms at the other end of the Arabian Gulf.
Within months, Mr Zabbal, who was 33 years old at the time, found himself in Sharjah.
"That was the only emirate then with an airport," he said.
Equipped with a camera, a notebook and pencils, Mr Zabbal, who is from Cairo of Lebanese-Syrian origins, made his way around the relatively unknown sheikhdoms, or Trucial States, of the emirates, and his work played a large role in introducing the lands and people inhabiting them to the rest of the region.
"I wanted to highlight unknown or neglected places in the Arab world, and write everything about the place and its people," said Mr Zabbal, who helped launch the Arab magazine al Arabi in 1958.
Eager to get out of the magazine's offices in Kuwait, Mr Zabbal published more than 13 in-depth features on the emirates. They included exclusive interviews with rulers, as well as interviews with tribesmen and residents of all nationalities whom he met during his many trips to what was to become the UAE.
"Over 80 per cent of what the Arab world knows about the emirates from that time period comes from the diligent and intricate reports of Mr Zabbal," said Dr Hasan al Naboodah, an Emirati historian and the dean of libraries at the UAE University in Al Ain.
"What he wrote reached the rest of the Arab world, and then aid in all forms started to flow in and help in the development of the emirates."
At 85, Mr Zabbal, still agile and travelling, is regularly featured in local newspapers and magazines as a "critical witness" to local history. His work is often displayed in heritage-related exhibitions here and in other Arab countries.
In 2001, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, Mr Zabbal published his UAE-related works in the 286-page book Kont Shahid (I Was a Witness). The book captures historic moments of the emirates and includes colourful commentary on myriad aspects of the lives of the people whose stories he told.
The book, which is out of print, highlights forgotten traditions such as al tomina, which involves a girl who completes her memorisation of the Quran celebrating by dressing up, touring her neighbourhood and receiving gifts.
"This was a chance for the mothers and their sons to see some of the girls and then propose marriage to them," said Mr Zabbal. "It was all so innocent and lovely."
When he arrived in the emirates on assignment, Mr Zabbal had 10 years of experience under his belt working as a reporter and editor in Egypt. A career he fell into because of his love of the written word and history.
Mr Zabbal spent 22 years working at al Arabi, which with its vivid photos and elaborate features has been compared to National Geographic. During his tenureat the magazine, he wrote about 200 places in the Arab world, prompting the Arab media to label him the "Ibn Battuta of al Arabi". Mr Zabbal made a point of visiting some of the places written about by the famous 14th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, introducing them to a new generation of Arabs.
Although he is retired and lives in Canada, Mr Zabbal still plays a crucial role by "reintroducing" the past he has witnessed. Whenever he visits his daughters in UAE, he carries with him a suitcase filled with original clippings and photos related to the Emirates.
Pulling out two sets of black and white photographstakenin 1961, he explained how they capture "important before-and-after moments" in Khorfakkan's history.
"See, here the little boy is coming in with torn and poor clothes, and then in the second photo the same boy gets a pair of new school uniforms donated by Kuwait in time for his first day at school," said Mr Zabbal.
His dream is to establish a centre of documentation and research dedicated to the Arab world and its history, a repository for his passion. In addition to his work involving the UAE, Mr Zabbal's archives include studies on Arabs who moved to the Americas and Canada. One of the particularly interesting ones involves Arabs who travelled on the Titanic, which sank in 1912. His archives are housed in five rooms of his home in Canada.
"I was lucky to be a witness to decades of change everywhere, like here in the UAE, and the rest of the Arab world. I want future Arab generations to share in this witness, and be as lucky as I and know their world."
One of Salim Zabbal’s favorite stories was “Men With Red Feet”, for which he was given rare access to Abu Musa island and interviewed the men who worked in the red oxide mines. Photographs show him in 1968 with Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the deputy ruler of Sharjah, on a boat heading to Abu Musa. Iranian forces began occupying Abu Musa, along with the Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands, in 1971, on the eve of the UAE’s independence.
Mr Zabba’s first visit to Abu Dhabi airport, in the early 1960s, involved a turbulent flight, after which the small plane’s front tyres became mired in mud. Mr Zabbal and the flight’s other passengers had to push the plane to its final landing spot while the airport staff pulled the aircraft with a rope attached to a car.
Another favourite memory from the 1960s was of going underground with members of the local al Ameri tribe as they dug water channels, known as aflaj. The work took years. “With just a hammer and a chisel, these men dug tunnels 50 meters underground that would extend for more than 13 kilometers all the way to the water source,” recalled Mr Zabbal. “I really admired them.”