Monday, June 24, 2024

A Boy from Shindagah: When Home was a Hut

by Joanna Andrews

My father, Ahmad bin Mohammed Al Habtoor (left) with my maternal uncles and my maternal grandfather, Ahmad bin Khalaf Al Otaiba (fourth from left)
The vast Liwa Oasis, bordering the hostile Empty Quarter (Rub’ al-Khali desert)
View of the creek
Around the 1960s, the houses that were built with palm leaves were replaced, with more space, bigger rooms and more solid walls
A fine example of the majestic wind tower houses that once housed Dubai’s wealthy. This one along with several others still stand proud in the city’s historic Bastikiya district

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor recently opened a permanent exhibit of his life. The Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Life Journey, takes visitors on an interactive journey of the Al Habtoor Group Chairman’s life. The exhibit is a retrospective collection spanning the course of Al Habtoor’s personal and professional life. Joanna Andrews gives Al Shindagah readers a sneak peek into the start of the exhibit –The Boy from Shindagah, which features his humble beginnings.

I was raised as a fighter during an era filled with obstacles to survival. The bare necessities for life were scarce. We dug wells for brackish water infested with insects. We hunted or fished for sustenance and often slept hungry


As a youngster, our tiny barasti dwelling close to the coastline seemed vast. Our sole furnishings were thin mattresses, blankets, cushions and a handmade rug. We had a solitary bed which no one slept in. At times of the year, huge waves would drench our bedding. At others, there was no escape from unforgiving heat, humidity, sandstorms and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Electricity was the stuff of dreams. We ate with our hands from a communal tray on the ground. Our toilet was a hole in the ground some distance away. Yet, despite discomforts, we were grateful for the little we had. We were happy. I learned never to judge a man by his possessions but rather the gold enwrapped in his heart.


Members of the ruling family, wealthy merchants, pearl traders and foreign officials lived in imposing multi-storied coral and limestone wind tower houses (known as Beit Morjan) constructed around a courtyard. They often boasted extensive women’s quarters and majlises (meeting rooms) where guests would be received. Some of the more elaborate barasti homes were also cooled by simple wind towers.


My father Ahmad bin Mohammed Al Habtoor was a proud son of the Al Murrar tribe, a sub-tribe of Bani Yas whose origins stretch to the Oasis of Liwa that flanks the Empty Quarter – one of the hottest, driest deserts on the planet. Many of the most influential Emirati families originally hail from Liwa and still feel emotionally connected to their ancestral home.

Members of the Al Habtoor extended family, including my own branch, are related by marriage to the ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as well as prominent clans, among them the Al Otaiba, Al Mijren, Al Shaafar, Al Ghaith, Al Mazrooie and Al Suwaidi families.

I have never been able to discover the origins of my family’s name, Al Habtoor, despite efforts by Dubai’s last expatriate police chief and a former president of Yemen to solve the mystery.


My father Ahmad, the son of a highly respected religious sheikh, was not only my rock, he was my best friend. He taught me to swim, ride, hunt and shoot. He rarely let me out of his sight and took me on his travels to Bahrain and India. A small trader of pearls and gold, he instilled in me the basics of commerce and an enduring love of poetry.

I would sit in awe listening to him recite the works of some of the greatest Arab poets. He wrote beautiful poems himself. How I wish I had written them down. I remember just a few lines of one dedicated to Sheikh Khalifa bin Saeed Al Maktoum who was going through a rough patch:

I have received wonderful words, welcome as numerous as souls as numerous as all sunsets and as numerous as pulling causes stillness; from inner pouring he is infected, and in no sleep he will delight; complaining of love’s abandonment; and from increasing delusions; I say go towards the companion willingly; and give him the softest words.

Our simple home made of palm fronds was our castle, ruled by love and mutual respect. Honour and dignity were our treasures. My beloved father always told me to hold my head up high.

Please keep your comments relevant to this website entry. Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Please note that gratuitous links to your site are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments.
More Articles by