x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

What it means to be a winner

Nominations for this year's Abu Dhabi Awards close in less than a week, here we profile two previous winners.

Hamad al Darmaki set up a football team for hearing impaired people.
Hamad al Darmaki set up a football team for hearing impaired people.

ABU DHABI // With less than a week to go until the end of the nomination period for the Abu Dhabi Awards, organisers are urging the public to present potential candidates for the capital's highest honour.

As of the middle of this month - two weeks after voting began on August 30 - about 9,000 nominations had been put forward via hundreds of booths in the city, or the vehicles roaming the emirate that can be flagged down to take nominations. Organisers said the figure was 50 per cent higher than during the first two weeks of last year's awards, when, in a late rush, 47,000 nominations were eventually put forward for 10,000 names.

The awards, established in 2005, honour residents of the capital for acts of charity and community service. The awards ceremony is planned for December at the Emirates Palace hotel, where Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, will present the winners with the Abu Dhabi Medal, the highest civilian honour in the emirate. The nomination process is scheduled to conclude on September 27.

"We have been overwhelmed by the positive response," the organising committee said in a statement. The voting "shows the community spirit that exists in Abu Dhabi and the connection the public feels". Maryam Amiri, a member of the committee, said in a briefing session last month that the awards would focus on women and residents of Al Gharbia after the low turnout in those categories at last year's awards. The theme of the awards this year is "the power of one", which, the organisers hope, will dispel any impressions of exclusivity. The National is profiling two previous winners: a deaf man who founded a football team for the hard of hearing and a German historian who chronicled the UAE's development.

When Hamad al Darmaki speaks, everybody listens. But he delivers his message in a different way from most: through hand gestures. He suffers from a hearing and speech impairment that has been with him since birth.

The 26-year-old Emirati first joined an elementary school in Al Ain, where he sat alongside friends who did not have his disability. He shrugs as he animates his classmates taking down the teacher's notes, delivered orally, leaving him in the lurch. Still, it was "the first step that got me to learn and interact with society," he said through an interpreter. Although he has few regrets, the experience left him cold, creating a sense of inequality whose persistence would shape his priorities once he had completed his studies.

"I felt there was a difference between my education level and that of normal people," he said. After two years, he was taken to the Abu Dhabi Centre for Special Needs, where he finished middle school, before travelling to the United States. The hardest part was having to learn American Sign Language, he said. From 1992 to 2000, he studied at Northwestern Connecticut Community College where he graduated with a degree in information technology.

After returning to the UAE, he started working at Injazat, an IT company based in the capital. He said the American experience made him acutely aware of the inadequate treatment of special-needs individuals in the UAE. "There are some problems. Some people look down on us, thinking, 'They can't give as much,' or 'they can't learn,'" he said. Although the situation is improving because of increased awareness, "when I went to the US, this was to a lesser extent; not like Arab society. There wasn't that discrimination." Better education meant people like him in the US could "speak up about their rights", whereas "we deaf people cannot even go to university or listen to the Friday sermon" in the UAE. However, the problem was not simply institutional. There was also a dearth of sign language interpreters, particularly males. "If your language isn't understood, you can't engage with society," he said. "Like now, you're doing an interview, you're not talking directly to me," he said through his interpreter and long-time collaborator at the Al Ain Centre for Special Needs, Salma al Tamimi. That disconnection prompted Mr al Darmaki to begin drawing up plans for an association that would represent deaf people in the UAE. A more immediate goal, however, was his idea of starting a football team for Al Ain's hearing-impaired. "It's a chance to fill their free time so they can stay away from problems and gossip and things like that, and fill that free time with something useful, like sports," Mr al Darmaki said. "It's also a way to engage with people who talk. We can't talk to them. But through the game we can." He also wanted them "to interact with people who speak, and get more experience and encourage co-operation between them". The team consists of people from 16 to 35 years old who have been playing since the league's inception in 2006. With their participation in matches at the Al Ain Officers' Club with non-hearing-impaired teams, the lines of normality begin to blur. "It's a chance to teach them sign language," he said. For his efforts, Mr al Darmaki won the Abu Dhabi Award in 2006. He recalls meeting Sheikh Mohammed. At first, there was no translator, and they could not understand each other. "But I felt from his greeting a warmth and sincerity of emotion," he said. "I wanted to hear from Sheikh Mohammed, so I took an interpreter with me and sat with him. He told me 'Be strong, and we're happy you're carrying the UAE's flag.'"

History is penned by the victors. But what of a young country such as the UAE, whose history is shaped every day by its citizens and residents? Dr Frauke Heard-Bey, a German historian who has been living in Abu Dhabi for more than 40 years, was given the task of chronicling that history. But her personal history also makes fascinating reading. One of the first things she remembers is the sound of bombs exploding in her hometown near a German harbour. Her father, a rear admiral in the German navy, had perished with his ship, the battlecruiser the Scharnhorst, after an epic battle in the Arctic Ocean in 1943. The rest of the family then found itself "after the war on the Communist side of the German divide". Ten years later, they fled so she could go to college in the West, leaving everything behind. Dr Heard-Bey then went on to study history and political science at university in Heidelberg. Her experience with Middle Eastern culture began then. "I even started Arabic," she said, because she wanted to go to Egypt for archaeological digs. "I bought the grammar book and everything, and after about three lessons I realised this is not for the faint-hearted," she said, laughing. "Either you do Arabic and nothing else, or you could not keep up." Dr Heard-Bey finished her PhD in 1967, and was married five days later to a British petroleum engineer who worked in Abu Dhabi. She arrived there in November. The process was not without its hitches, she remembers. After she flew her books and belongings out of Germany to London, they were shipped to Abu Dhabi, where they stayed on a vessel offshore for three weeks. "There was no port. So these ships were offloaded on the high seas on to pontoons and brought here and left on the beach, and then put on a truck and got round to our house," she said. Living in a company compound of 36 houses where everyone spoke English, she sought to break out of the mould quickly. But the Arabs she met were few, and the Arabic courses offered by the company were rudimentary. "At that time we had not much contact with local people, because one was sort of in this pocket of the oil company society," she said. "The company really felt a 'don't go and disturb the natives' sort of thing." But the community spirit created a sense of attachment among Abu Dhabi's expatriates. "When things were difficult in Abu Dhabi, you stick together and do things and look out for each other," she said. "And the whole spirit of being part and witness to a country that was growing, was so positive, everything was different every time you look, and was promising. And to be part of this was a phase in people's life that they would never forget." Dr Heard-Bey also remembers Britain's declaration in 1968 that it would pull out of the Gulf, and all the subsequent press attention the region garnered. At a junket in the Creek Carlton, the only hotel in existence at the time, she realised that the surrounding environment and society was not going to last. She started taking many pictures. That marked the beginning of her mission to document the history of the emirates. She began regularly visiting what would become the Centre for Documentation and Research, which was founded in 1968. The centre had grown in importance as people began contemplating life after the British. By 1971-72, cataloguing the collection became a full-time job, in the middle of the confusion that founding a new country brought. "It became my place of work for 39 years," she said. Material began to flow in from many sources, including Germany, Spain and Portugal. But by far the largest source was the India Office Library in London, which held 23,000 files on the Gulf region, and 90,000 others that mentioned it in passing. "As soon as India was important, the Gulf was important as a backdrop to what happened in India, and eventually as a very important highway of transport through the Middle East, Basra, and over land to the Mediterranean," Dr Heard-Bey said. Numerous rolls of microfilm were assembled, including treaties, letters and other documents. She developed contacts with curators who helped supply the material. In the process, she wrote her magnum opus on the country's history: From Trucial States to the United Arab Emirates. Dr Heard-Bey's contributions to the compilation of the UAE's history earned her the Abu Dhabi Award in 2007. "It was just like a dream," she recalled. Her sister, who lived in Johannesburg, attended, as did her children. "Sheikh Mohammed is such a communicator, like his father," she said. "He seemed to have personal interest in everyone on the stage, and made you feel that he really appreciated what each one had done." In the end, fleshing out the UAE's history became more than an academic exercise for this long-time resident, who witnessed the country's growth since its inception. "I realised it was something that was needed and appreciated by people," she said. kshaheen@thenational.ae