When UAE entrepreneur Yasser bin Khediya and his daughters, Roadha and Khawla, began thinking about a book to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the UAE, they had a single driving principle: to avoid the anticipated.
Charting landmark projects and events would have been one obvious way of mapping the history of the UAE. While this would give an accurate impression of how the country bloomed from humble beginnings to become a global powerhouse, it overlooks a vital, human element.
This individual contribution is precisely what the family, working with celebrated Dutch graphic designer and bookmaker Irma Boom, chose to highlight in 50U instead. The book’s focus is demonstrated in its title “U”, a play on the word “you” and a celebration of the “United” emirates. The mirror design of the book’s cover allows the reader to see their own reflection and to possibly identify themselves as part of the UAE’s story.
Published by Archis, the book commemorates the 50th anniversary of the country’s establishment by profiling 50 individuals from disparate backgrounds and specialties.
The approach revels in the multiculturalism of the UAE while also building a kaleidoscopic vantage point to explore the country’s architecture, art, history and environment. The book was officially launched by Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, at a suhour event last month in Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. It is dedicated to the legacy of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was Deputy Ruler of Dubai, and the Minister for Finance and Industry of the UAE, as well as the head of the UAE’s delegation to the International Monetary Fund and the Opec Fund.
“The idea of the book, the concept, is from my sister,” Khawla says. “She wants to give back to the people, to talk about the people. I can grab a book about Dubai anywhere in the world and it’s all about the construction, development or the government. There’s nothing that highlights the different kinds of people that live in Dubai, to show why they are here. That was the main point of the book.”
Researchers, the brothers Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, along with an editorial team including Archis in Holland, selected people from different walks of life to give a first-hand impression of what it has been like to grow up or settle in the region.
“This was really a family project,” Khawla says. “It was a blessing. We were identifying missing elements as we were going along. Ahmed and Rashid, of course, came with their background, experience, their contacts and knowledge of the UAE. This was well within their field.”
The book paints an intimate picture of life in the Emirates through the memories, hopes and ambitions of its inhabitants. Factual accounts of the UAE’s history are told alongside human stories that are the result of extensive interviews with the young nation’s residents and visitors.
Interviewees include Nora Al Matrooshi, the UAE’s first female astronaut; folk poetry researcher Rashid Al Mazrouei; photographer Ramesh Shukla; filmmaker Abdulla Al Kaabi; architect Rem Koolhaas; Mohammed Al Madani, son of the oldest tailor in Dubai; Peter Jackson, architect adviser for the Ruler’s Office in Sharjah; trade magnate Tony Jashanmal; fashion designer Fatma Al Fahim; arts patron Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal; and historian Abdullah Salem Al Sheikh, famous for his Instagram account @jumeira2323.
Each of the interviewees was asked to identify an object that best symbolises their relationship with the country. From coral stones and the resilient ghaf tree, to inherited watches, pendants and even an old Land Rover left behind by the British Army, the chosen objects convey an intimate portrait of the interviewees’ patriotism.
Besides individuals, the book also puts a spotlight on places real and envisioned, including The Mastaba and the country’s first organic farm.
Besides the featured archival photographs, one of the visual highlights in the book are the photographs by artist Charlie Koolhaas, showing different architectural perspectives of Dubai: from its glistening skyscrapers and lofty cranes to boarded-up general goods stores and eagle-eyed shots of construction sites.
“We commissioned her to come and take raw photos, from her eyes, of what she feels about the UAE,” Khawla says. “So all of these images, we didn’t give her some kind of criteria, or what, where to take pictures and where not to? We told her to feel free to go and show Dubai from her [perspective].”
Khawla says she and her family intended the book to be a snapshot of the UAE at this point in time, a reference to be used by all those curious to know what the country and its inhabitants were like around the time of its 50th anniversary.
“It’s a resource,” she says. “It is going to be a reference book in most of the universities in the UAE, including Zayed University.”
Ultimately, Khawla says, the book is an invitation to the reader to take part in the story of the UAE.”
Updated: May 20, 2022, 10:56 AM