‘Al Shindagah’ gives you a sneak peak of what’s inside ‘Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: The Autobiography’. Khalaf Al Habtoor quotes the well-known American author Helen Keller in his autobiography, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing,” he writes. And that’s certainly evident in this passage from the book where he recalls the first time he ventured out of the United Arab Emirates - as a stowaway.
In 1958, Dubai’s first movie house, Al Watan, was built in Gamal Abdel Nasser Square, providing an endless source of enjoyment to adults and children alike. At last, we were able to get an idea of what the world beyond our borders looked like! In today’s terms it was a fleapit, but we didn’t care about the hard seats or the stifling smoky atmosphere as we watched Hindi, British, American and Egyptian films with wide-eyed wonder.
The Egyptian cinema industry had flourished since the 1930s, but the 1950s and early 1960s were its ‘Golden Age’. We laughed at the antics of the comedian, Ismail Yasin; dabbed our eyes during poignant tales featuring Layla Murad or Faten Hamama; and were riveted by the flirtatiousness of Nadia Lutfi, Souad Hosni and Hend Rostom. Most young boys wanted to grow up to be like the dashingly handsome Rushdy Abaza or Ahmad Mazhar, both handsome guys who usually got the girl.
Egyptian movies and music had spread like wildfire around the Arab world to establish Egypt’s reputation as the region’s cultural heart. And certainly, the soulful songs of Farid Al Atrash and Umm Kulthum could be heard belting out from the souks and open-air traditional coffee shops of Dubai, where men gathered to smoke, do deals, play dominoes or enjoy a respite from domestic surroundings with old friends.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Umm Kulthum was the Arabs’ diva of all divas. She wasn’t exactly a classic beauty, but she had the voice of an angel and a rare ability to stir deep emotion in people of all ages. Egypt’s deposed King Farouk had decorated her with the highest order reserved for members of the Royal Family. This accolade from Britain’s puppet king prompted her shunning by the Musicians Guild subsequent to the July 1952 bloodless revolution, when for a short time, her voice was no longer heard on the radio.
Egypt’s new President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was not amused. When he found out that she had been banned by the Guild, he said, “What are they... crazy? Do they want to turn Egypt against us?” Her songs were soon aired again and she remained the region’s most beloved singer until her funeral in 1975 which drew 4 million mourners, making hers the fourth largest funeral attendance in history. President Abdel Nasser awarded Umm Kulthum the honorary ‘First Lady of Egypt’, a title always reserved for the president’s wife in every country. This rare honour illustrates Nasser’s admiration and respect for this irreplaceable chanteuse who captivated generations of Arabs with her ability to bring strong men to tears. Cowboy movies kept us boys on the edge of our seats and there was no one who didn’t love the action-packed tales of Robin Hood, epics such as Spartacus or The Magnificent Seven and tearjerkers like Lassie. But it was Bombay-made films (we didn’t know it as Bollywood in those days) that really captured my imagination with their strong heroes, graceful heroines,villainous deeds, adventure, romance, tragedy, dance and song.
Actors Raaj Kumar and Dilip Kumar were my childhood idols, while the south Indian actress and dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali was my first love long before she gained megafame starring with Raj Kapoor in the 1964 movie, Sangam. India seemed like a fantastical world of silkclad maharajas, longhaired bearded mystics, ornate palaces, shimmering lakes and lush hills; at least on celluloid. I could hardly wait to see for myself.
Within no time, my wish came true. My father was asked by some of his friends to join an informal consortium of small traders, who regularly carried merchandise from Dubai to sell in India and brought back Indian goods to sell in the local markets. I was above the moon when he decided to take me along with him on the first run, which entailed having to sneak on-board a cargo liner as we couldn’t afford the fare.
I was excited but scared as to what would happen to us, were we to be discovered. Thankfully, my elder brother sought out the captain to tell him that we were on-board. I’m not sure how Mohammed persuaded the captain to accept his unofficial passengers, although I suspect there was some bribery and bullying involved. Before he disembarked, Mohammed told us the captain had been informed in no uncertain terms that he was personally responsible for making sure we were fed and for ensuring our safe arrival. Mohammed was afraid of nothing and so he was well suited for the role of our family’s protector.
Now I was the one on the boat looking down at the boys swimming in the water below, but I had no fruit to throw their way; just a large bag of pistachios and peanuts which I intended to hang onto, as I hoped to exchange the nuts for pocket money. Unfortunately, my very first entrepreneurial endeavour was a failure. On the first day of the three-day voyage, I carefully laid out this bounty on a mat and waited for customers, but nobody was buying. I ended up scoffing all my wares myself.
The sea voyage turned out to be a disappointment. As much as I loved being in the water, I disliked being on it. Sadly, I was no sailor. Nights on deck were uncomfortable because my father would tie a rope around me and attach it to his wrist to prevent me rolling off the ship in my sleep; I knew just how our tethered goat must feel. I was far from happy about this precaution which I thought was entirely unnecessary but I knew that he had nothing but good intentions. He wasn’t going to take any chance of losing me to the Arabian Sea.
Most of the time I was either seasick or bored, as once the ship passed Oman, there was nothing to look at except seagulls and the occasional school of dolphins. So I decided to explore and found myself on the first class upper deck, where some children were playing table tennis. One of the boys invited me for a game. I had never played ping-pong before, but I soon caught on and had fun, until an eagleeyed steward noticed I didn’t belong in his section and kicked me out. That was slightly humiliating but not enough to deter me from going back again and again, until the vessel finally dropped anchor in the port of Bombay.
You can purchase a copy of ‘Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: The Autobiography’ from bookstores throughout the United Arab Emirates or on Booksarabia.com