Well known Nasheed singer Ahmed Bukhatir may never have excelled in his career were he not born in this era. He tells Al Shindagah why he’s proud to be a modern Emirati
Ahmed Bukhatir has been singing for as long as he can remember. The well-known Emirati Nasheed singer, who was born in Dubai, used to sing for his family; sing at school; sing for his friends and, when no one was around, he even used to sing to himself.
The fifth in a family of 10 children, he was born in 1975, just three years after the unification of the United Arab Emirates and at a time when the country was about to change irrevocably.
Now 35 years old, the spiritual Quranic singer has grown-up in the UAE as those changes were happening, but far from lamenting the old way of life, he’s proud of the progress his country has made.
“I feel lucky to have been born when I was, in light of how the country has advanced,” he says. “I’m not saying it was bad before [the changes], but it was different. Everything was too slow back then and there was much hardship for many...”
It may have been slow, but Ahmed has fond memories of his childhood and especially the time he spent in the Al Nassariyah neighbourhood of Sharjah, where his family moved when he was 10 years old. “I remember being put into a car with my brothers and sisters and taken to what seemed to us like a huge house. It had a tennis court and a swimming pool and we were very excited...” he recalls with nostalgia.
He speaks highly of his family and in particular his parents who instilled in him solid values. “My family taught me to be good, honest, loyal and kind. The youth of today don’t always listen to their elders or pay attention to such principles,” he says, adding that he remembers always being surrounded by relatives. “Most people had large families back then, but there were many women in each household and they helped with the children. The women were not educated back then, so they learnt from each other.”
His father, a successful businessman, pushed all of his children to succeed. “My father always worked hard and encouraged us to do the same. We had to get high grades in our studies,” he says. “If I got 19 out of 20 in a school exam, he would say, ‘Why didn’t you get 20/20?’
“Anything less than the best was unacceptable and if one of us scored low marks in a test it was a total nightmare. We all paid the price. My father enrolled us in horse riding lessons for example and when one of my brothers didn’t do well – we all had to do the exercises again. He was like that with everything...”
Perhaps it is this drive to achieve that has contributed to Ahmed’s success as a traditional Quranic singer. Having released no less than six successful albums in recent years, he is fast making a name for himself not just in the Middle East, but internationally. In October 2010, he performed in London at a Global Peace and Unity event that drew over 50,000 people in just one weekend.
And yet he never planned to become a singer and chose to study management at University in Al Ain after school. He had been reciting the Quranic verses every day since he was a little boy, but singing was not considered a viable profession back then.
He only started singing professionally at the age of 20, after spending a day in a recording studio with friends who were recording their own voices. He thought they were too focused on mimicking American artists and when he showed them how to do it they were blown away by his voice and encouraged him to take up singing professionally.
Indeed before his breakthrough success in with his first album in 2000, Ahmed’s family had reservations about his calling. “They thought it might lead to a certain type of negative behaviour, but once they saw that my songs were helping people; that they were spiritual journeys - they changed their mind,” he explains.
After school, he could have travelled abroad to study, but opted instead to stay in the UAE. “I didn’t want to leave [the UAE]. I’d become spoilt from the lifestyle here. Now, whenever I travel abroad, I’m happy to come home. The UAE has grown so much in recent years, but I always, always want to come back to it,” he says with pride.
Despite the fact that he still lives in Sharjah in order to be close to his relatives, he is vehement in his defense of Dubai. “To those who have criticised Dubai I say, ‘You would not have the guts to transform your city. It’s easy to criticise, but it takes real guts to actually do something. The changes that have taken place in the UAE he says have pushed its residents to challenge themselves and adapt. “These days in Dubai we have roads; we have ports; we have infrastructure and so many other facilities besides. We even have the tallest building in the world. The UAE is booming and we all want to be part of that,” he adds. “But I think we also understand that there is still much more to be done...”
His contribution to the country’s development was cemented when he was appointed a member of the consultative council of Sharjah, on a committee focussing on education, the media, culture and sport. Part of his job was to travel around Sharjah, spending time with the local people and finding out what, if any, problems they were. Issues he came across such as lack of teachers in schools or lack of access to clean water in apartment blocks he reported to the government so that action could be taken to rectify the problems.
His four-year tenure comes to a close this year however. “It was a role that really made me very happy. I would willingly stay on if I were re-appointed,” he says. He is vocal too on the need for more support of the arts in the UAE. “If I were to become the Minister of Culture of the UAE, I would gather all the creative people in the country and show the world we have our own talent. I think the UAE lacks awareness of its people’s creativity.
“I am self sponsored,” he says. “But when I ask the government for support, it hesitates. Why? Maybe because each city has different rules and yet I have been introduced to audiences of thousands on countless occasions abroad as someone from the UAE, who is representing my country. Artists, writers and singers need to have support to go out and do the same,” he adds.
Although singing is his main passion in life, Ahmed is also a committed family man and clearly proud of his three children – Abdullah 9, Aysha 8 and Sara, 6. “I try to teach my kids the way I was taught,” he says. “But I don’t think they will ever really understand what I went through to get to where I am today. “They will find it hard in other ways. We have to guide our children on the right path in order for them to stay grounded. Life is so fast these days. Kids want mobile phones and to be on Facebook when they are still so young,” But having achieved much so far, he says getting older doesn’t bother him. “I’m happy to be 35 years old; I’m still healthy and I’m looking forward to learning more. Other people my age tell me they don’t want to celebrate their birthdays, but I tell them to think positively – we all have so much in life and most of us don’t even realise it.” And this is a recurring theme in Ahmed’s spiritual nasheed songs.