Every resident in Dubai developed a bond with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Ruler. It could not be described, it went beyond his sterling qualities. When he passed away the people, both local and expatriate, felt they had lost a member of their family.
Excerpts from Asha Bhatia’s book: ‘Life in the Twinkle of an Eye – Dubai – A Hundred Years in Ten’
He warmed people’s hearts forever, this benevolent and unforgettable Ruler of Dubai. In the customary sequence of events, the Ruler was buried and life carried on with little or no fuss. It felt as though an earthquake had occurred and one expected things would come tumbling down. But the foundation Sheikh Rashid had laid was so strong and so unique that nothing crumbled. In fact there was a new enthusiasm and energy brought about by the desire to live up to the dreams of Sheikh Rashid and take Dubai forward with gusto.
His doctor, Dr Joseph Muscat-Baron, took care of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum for 14 years. He said he felt honoured and privileged to have had this opportunity and he developed a bond with him which he could not describe. In a voice choked with emotion, Dr Muscat-Baron said Sheikh Rashid was one of a kind and he could understand how his family must feel because he felt terribly sad. ‘I have never ever met a man in my life who could compare with him,’ he added. His dynamism is something which is well known, but what 176 Life in the Twinkle of an Eye Dr Muscat-Baron talked about was Sheikh Rashid as a man. He had the incredible power of almost hypnotising you into giving him allegiance. He did not have to do anything, it was just his presence. He was terribly kind in the most refined way. He never spoke very much — when something needed to be done he did it with the greatest alacrity and the least possible fuss.
The late Sheikh Rashid looked at a person and judged for himself if he could do the job in hand. That was all that mattered — looks, smiles, or flowery language did not affect him. He considered the human being and his capabilities. His only criteria: if you were good for Dubai you were good for him. Dr Muscat-Baron said Sheikh Rashid was aware of his surroundings till the last few minutes. He bore his illness with tremendous courage and never lost either his dignity or his respect. The greatness of the man was such that he could convey his thoughts in just a few words — he spoke sparingly, he never ventured into lengthy discourses, but his words conveyed a wealth of meaning. Dubai was his life and his love, you could see it on his face when he returned from a trip abroad; as soon as Dubai came into view, he was home. ‘Sheikh Rashid was the rock on which everyone and everything secured itself,’ added Dr Muscat-Baron, ‘but he developed other rocks in his four sons and they are the future of Dubai.’ ‘He was a genius,’ said G.B. Choitram Jethwani, recollecting his time with the late Ruler. An old-time trader in Dubai, GB as he is affectionately known, heads Gee Bee Trading Company and started operations in Dubai in the 1950s. It was the first company to bring in furniture from Bombay and start an office with desks and chairs. They were also pioneers in comfort and brought in two fans which operated on wet batteries.
Everyone visited their office to stare Asha Bhatia 177 at the fans — they were such a novelty. ‘We saw Sheikh Rashid very often in those days,’ he mused, ‘Every Diwali he would come and dine with us and share his thoughts and plans for Dubai. We would walk in to see him at any time of day or night and his attitude was always approachable, cooperative and kind. When Dubai discovered oil and things changed Sheikh Rashid did not forget his old friends.’ B.K. Menon came to Dubai in 1975 and made it his home. He felt Sheikh Rashid was a ‘resplendent’ Ruler one of a kind that providence occasionally gives to mankind to guide and promote people to a better quality of life. He was a man blessed with great wisdom with resolution of thought and a lion-hearted approach to life. BK said, ‘Sheikh Rashid was a trailblazer, particularly in the areas of national development. Every project he undertook was studied and analysed and the reports declared that their financial viability was doubtful. But for Sheikh Rashid, a man gifted with foresight, those ventures were a must for the country. Sweeping aside the criticisms of well-meaning doubters, he would go ahead like the bumble bee. The bumble bee, according to scientific principles, cannot fly. It has a short wing span and the pay load is too heavy. And so, aerodynamically speaking, it cannot fly. But the bumble bee ignores all these aspects and flies, and flies well.
Sheikh Rashid was like that: Port Rashid, Jebel Ali, Dubai Trade Centre, Dugas and many more are standing monuments to his resolute attitude.’ B.K. Menon also says that more than his being a farsighted Ruler, what will be remembered by the ordinary man is his benevolence. Foreigners may live for decades in another country but it is only in Dubai that for every resident Sheikh Rashid was Our Ruler. Years ago he remembered a worker in a factory, when mentioning Sheikh Rashid, referred to him in 178 Life in the Twinkle of an Eye Malayalam as the divine embodiment of nobleness. How apt and how true! In 1944, when Khimchand Naraindas Khiara came to Dubai, Sheikh Saeed, Father of Sheikh Rashid, was the Ruler. The early Indian traders had close links with him, explained Khiara, affectionately called ‘Chacha’ by all who knew him. Khiara’s family had been in Dubai for over 200 years. In 1958 when Sheikh Rashid took over as Ruler of Dubai, the Indian merchant community had excellent relations with him. When they started booking orders from Japan, Sheikh Rashid encouraged them every step of the way and told the newly opened Customs post, ‘Give Chacha all the help he needs.’ He knew that the traders’ business dealings would put Dubai on the map.
Whether it was the Hindu temple, the plot for the Indian High School building, the Indian Sports Club or the cremation ground, Sheikh Rashid ensured that the Indian community had all the facilities they asked for. Chacha added that when they went on picnics in those days Sheikh Rashid would come and join them for a while and chat. Eventually goods started coming into Dubai and there would be no place for the barges to come into the Creek and the goods would be discharged ten miles out at sea. Seeing the problem Sheikh Rashid called for a meeting and a decision was taken to clear the mouth of the Creek. ‘After oil was discovered God gave him everything,’ Chacha added, but he did not forget the Indian traders who had started business transactions in Dubai years before the boom. ‘We will miss him,’ said Chacha, ‘he was a gem of a man. Often he would sit in his Majlis till two in the morning deliberating Asha Bhatia 179 over the creation of modern Dubai.
He was always available to anyone who needed him.’ An event, such as the passing of the Ruler, could have led to far-reaching consequences in our daily lives in Dubai. However, it was kudos to the Government of Dubai that the transition was smooth and, after the period of mourning, life was back to normal. Shiv was out of town when Sheikh Rashid passed away and rang anxiously morning and evening to ensure all was well. In fact his phone calls were more frequent now when he was away and I felt he probably missed me and the kids. I was always teased by my girlfriends about his attentiveness and concern; they felt it was rare and unnatural after 21 years of marriage! I mused and contemplated their remarks and put it down to envy — every marriage was different and they obviously grudged me the attention.
I received from my husband! Dubai flourished in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait and funds poured in to support our work at the Centre. Despite the siege or perhaps because of it, our work with the children thrived. We did get requests from parents of Kuwaiti special needs children for admission, but we could accommodate only a few — our waiting list seemed to get longer every month. The outcome of all the publicity and attention we received catapulted me into the limelight, much against my wish. I had always maintained that the best way to live in a place like Dubai was to put your head down and work.
The more discreet you were the better, especially in the environment we lived in. Unfortunately it was not to be and I suddenly got inundated by requests for interviews by journalists, my colleagues. I fled the scene but I had to acquiesce to a few requests. 180 Life in the Twinkle of an Eye Shiv was a little bit in his own world but I put that down to the fact that most of us, with school-going children, were concerned in case we had to leave Dubai due to the political situation in the region. Our children, unlike most of our friends’ kids, had studied in a primary school that followed the Indian curriculum. So they were well-versed in Hindi and the Maths and English programmes that were followed in the Indian educational system. For the kids who had only studied the British curriculum a change, if it was a return to India, could be very arduous.
As with several of my radio interviews, I had the opportunity to meet international celebrities. But I was delighted and nervous when informed that Mohammad Ali, the greatest sportsman of all times, was passing through and I was expected to interview him. Ali packed a punch and my sports-crazy family had watched every fight and held his persona in great awe. The man who could ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ was my next talk show guest. My sons were jealous and asked if they could come with me as an assistant — to hold the mike perhaps! Ali, the light-heavy weight champion in the 1960 Rome Olympics, held the world championship an unprecedented three different times.
Notably, the greatest was proud to say, ‘Even if you dream of beating me, wake up and apologise.’ His life captured the unrest of the Civil Rights movement and the black person’s quest for equality. In person, Mohammad Ali was coping with the onset of Parkinson’s. He bore the symptoms well but he did not look like the all-conquering hero. The disease was taking its toll. It was indeed an honour to talk to Ali, but I left feeling sad and telling my technical assistant that we would not say anything about his physical Asha Bhatia 181 ailments to anyone — the image of the greatest had to be preserved for posterity. With so many new people residing in or visiting Dubai, tourism blossomed. And one of the favourite outings was to the souks. The perfume souk is very popular but the spice souk is almost more exciting and is a treasure trove of pungent aromas, tantalising tastes and a symbol of tradition passed through the ages. It is a precious heirloom, handed down through generations, reminiscent of a way of life in times gone by.
As you enter, the smells assail, arrest and attract all at once. They conjure in slow motion, dramatic vignettes of undulating lines of caravans moving through a harsh desert landscape loaded with silk and spices. The souk is a direct descendent of those days of barter trading. The only difference today is that the volume of trade has increased manifold in keeping with the times. The aromas of various spices waft through the air — pungent, tingling, arousing, mysteriously mouth watering — compelling you to breathe deeply of them. The souk is like nature’s own backyard replete with a bounty that mankind can harness for the good of body and mind. Known for its variety of fabric – cotton, polyester, rayon, linen, woollen, acrylic, terelene — the choice of fabric is endless.
The kaleidoscope of colours is breath-taking and the variety in design ranges from the traditional to the very modern. We are in the fabulous fabric souk of Dubai. Vashu Shroff came to Dubai in 1960 before the textile souk had developed into a retail market for wholesalers. He arrived on the ill-fated Dara vessel with 124 dirhams and a determination and confidence which, he says, has guided him all these many years. A well-known figure and the backbone of the Indian community in Dubai, Vashu says he started his work as a cleaner, salesman and manager. He had to do everything, he 182 Life in the Twinkle of an Eye admits, and added that he learnt so much from the experience.
He remembers showing off armfuls of smooth pastel voiles and soft shimmering satins. He would open and roll the fabric many times a day and initially the local residents were thrilled with the availability of goods at their doorstep. Today, from small beginnings, Vashu’s Regal Traders has developed and Dubai has slowly turned into a shopper’s paradise. Charged, dynamic and electrifying, the Dubai electronics market is overcoming the initial uncertainties thrown up by the Gulf crisis. It is slowly but surely moving back to its place of prominence in the city’s trading turf. An accurate barometer of the state and atmosphere of trade in Dubai, these high profile markets, with their supplier and dealer networks, adjust constantly to changing times and fortunes. Most traders take losses in their stride, confident that in time the pendulum will swing the other way.
Chandu Bhai’s family came to Dubai in the 1940s when his father started business with pearl diving. He encouraged his son to join him 15 years later, but Chandu Bhai decided to strike out as one of the first electronics dealers in Dubai. He has never looked back but admits that even today to do well — although the market is now huge and usually there is more demand for goods than supply — you have to have intuition and faith to survive. It is unique for its dazzling glitter, its lack of security and its unsophisticated presentation. The Dubai Gold Souk — a must on every tourist’s tour of the city — is built on years of trust and Eastern tradition where it is almost mandatory for a woman to own gold ornaments. It is considered her wealth, a form of saving for emergencies and an investment in the future. In Dubai the Gold Souk emerged in the late 1940s with a few shops in Bur Dubai and a sprinkling in Deira. When Jamnadas of Jamnadas Mohanlal Jewellers came in 1956, it was because he had been summoned Asha Bhatia 183 by his grandfather who had already established the family gold business. There were just eight shops in those days; by 1990 there were over 500. Jamnadas was the twenty-ninth member of his community to make Dubai his home. His arrival in Dubai in January 1956 is vividly etched in his memory.
He came on the Dwarka and the five-day voyage cost him 66 rupees which included two meals and two snacks per day! He admits that he used to work 20 hours a day being the owner, salesman and sunar (goldsmith). In 1961 Saif Al Ghurair installed a generator in Deira and you paid five rupees for a fan as a year’s rental charge. In the evenings, around 6.30 pm, he would switch the light off three times at an interval of five minutes to signal that he was switching it off. Quickly Petromax lamps were lit; so work continued. ‘It was very hot,’ he said, ‘We would have a pool of perspiration around us when we got up to leave. Today,’ he mused, ‘if the electricity goes off for five minutes, my wife and children complain and rush outside.’ Reminiscing about Sheikh Rashid, Jamnadas was misty eyed. At one time or another he helped all of us, he said. Whatever we may do for him today is not enough. It is because of him that we are here in Dubai. ‘Look at the Gold Souk, the hustle and bustle, the amount of business being transacted, traditional and modern designs in jewellery finding their own market,’ he said, adding, ‘We are proud of our Gold Souk and of the fact that we were pioneers here. Silver tarnishes, iron rusts, but gold remains the same even after years of storage and use.
Asha Bhatia is an award winning author. She was named in the Blackboard Women Leadership Awards 2018 – The Super 30 List. Her book is available on Amazon.