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My Early Life
by Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi
Translated by Domenyk Eades
Bloomsbury, London 2011
Hbk, 306pp. ISBN 978 14088 1420 8
In My Early Life the Ruler of Sharjah Emirate, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, records a personal account of the massive changes in the region during the 29 years before he became ruler. Divided into chronological, titled chapters, beginning with “ChildhoodDays”, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that such a volume
might be rather flat and prosaic. Not a bit of it. Sheikh Sultan has the advantage of already being an author of several works of nonfiction. He creates the scene for the reader by supplying a partial family tree of al-Qasimi male descendants (who are from both Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah Emirates) and includes at the end a comprehensive index of characters.
Throughout are evocative vignettes of people, places and events that left a lasting impression on the young Sheikh Sultan. A fierce storm with great winds and “mighty waves and violent sea” that swept away “all the houses, most of them made of palm leaves”, and tore down the large tent in which his mother happened to be sleeping,
leaving only the sturdy poles standing, is particularly memorable. In contrast there are the memories of summers spent in Sha’am, Ras al-Khaimah, searching for oysters in calm seas, walking on the white sandy beaches and climbing the golden sandy hills behind. The author’s love of nature and history is also illustrated by the tale of him rushing back from Cairo to stop his brother, then the Ruler, destroying Sharjah Fort, the oldest building in the Emirate, in an act of revenge against his cousin, the previous ruler. However, the “price of saving Sharjah Fort was Sheikh Sultan failing his exams” at Cairo University, and he was forced to resit the year. The Fort, meanwhile, was fully renovated in the 1990s, retaining its original doors and windows.
Sheikh Sultan was born in 1939, when the Emirates were known as the Trucial States and run by the British through a British Political Agent. British troops and warplanes for World War II kept the British air base busy, and were soon joined by US military engineers. A theme over much of the book is the relation of Sheikh Sultan’s family to the whims and demands of the British government. His father, Sheikh Muhammad, was exiled by the British to Bahrain when his succession as Ruler did not please them, and replaced by his nephew Sheikh Saqr, who in his turn was also removed by the British to Bahrain, and replaced by the present Ruler’s elder brother Khalid.
Sheikh Sultan himself was drawn into the fervour of Arab Nationalism, particularly after the military attacks on Suez by Britain, France and Israel. As an enthusiastic teenager he wanted to do something to make the British “aggressors lose” and ended up planning and carrying out three small “operations” against the British military base in Sharjah. Later, as a student in Cairo in the later 1960s, studying agriculture, he recounts how on the one hand he was mistakenly arrested for being an “Israeli spy” when he was only taking photographs of ornamental plants for his degree, and on the other he was encouraged to join the call for One Arab Nation and the Ba’ath Party – he joined the Party, but left when Party policy moved against Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1967, when the Six-Day War erupted, he joined up with many other students in Cairo as a volunteer for the Front, but after a few days’ training, President Nasser resigned, and enthusiasm dissipated.
The young Sultan was a keen reader and when his father decided it was time for him to make the Hajj, he made sure that on his way via Bahrain, he visited the Muayyad Bookshop, from which he used regularly to order books by post, and the Bushnaq Bookshop in Mecca. In 1972 he was to become the United Arab Emirates’ first Minister of Education.
My Early Life ends with the day in January 1972 when the author became Sharjah’s
Ruler, not quite two months after the Gulf Emirates were united in a single
independent country, bringing to a close a fascinating and personal glimpse
into the near past of the al-Qasimi family.
From Banipal 42 - New Writing from the Emirates
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