A Memoir of Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Lifestyle

Before the Oil: A Personal Memoir of Abu Dhabi is now available in Arabic

A vivid account of a lost Abu Dhabi is now available in Arabic.

Before the Oil traces the four years that Susan Hillyard, her infant daughter Deborah and husband Tim spent in the sheikhdom from 1954 to 1958.

The Arabic edition, launched in Geneva a few days ago, features scores of new archive photographs that document those years.

Deborah Henley was just nine-months-old when she arrived in the region and she showed some of these images of the town and her mother at the launch.

“It was her dream [to have this published in Arabic],” said Ms. Henley, who now lives in the Swiss city.

The 1950s were difficult times in the emirate. The collapse of the pearling industry had devastated the local economy, while the search for oil had entered its third, fruitless decade.

They were the first European couple to move to Abu Dhabi and the Hillyards – who were British – built the first house featuring luxuries such air conditioning.

They also provided rudimentary medical services to local people and forged long-lasting friendships with them and their rulers. Susan also kept a detailed diary, on which she based Before the Oil.

Susan became known as “Umm Deborah”, or mother of Deborah, and learned Arabic. The book mixes historical record with personal observations such as one interaction between a guard and a visitor at the Maqta customs crossing into Abu Dhabi island when Tim’s truck became stuck in the sabkha (salt flat).

Oil was discovered in 1958 just as the Hillyards were leaving the sheikhdom.

The book was first published in 2002 and the new Arabic edition includes a foreword by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance.

It was launched in the presence of the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, Obaid Al Zaabi, and it is hoped an event to mark its publication in Arabic will take place in Abu Dhabi later this year.

“The present always overlays the past so that it gets forgotten in a generation or so unless it gets written down.”

That letter came from Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE, asking her to write a book.

“This was Sheikh Zayed’s wish and my mother’s hope,” Ms. Henley said. “Her children and grandchildren are proud to have achieved this.

“Without the long-standing support and advice of Sheikh Nahyan and of old friends in the UAE it would never have happened. We are deeply grateful to him, to friends and family in the UK and Switzerland and to those involved in the translation.”


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