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Before the Oil: A book to recall life so very long ago

Why is a book out of print for over 13 years – and one that recalls events that took place more than half a century ago – one of the most significant publishing events of the year?

Anyone who has tried to obtain a copy of Susan Hillyard’s Before the Oil will know the answer. Her definitive and moving account of life in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1950s was limited to occasional appearances on eBay or second-hand bookshops, and with a price tag that reflected its rarity.

So it is cause for celebration that a new edition of Before the Oil is available in time for this year’s National Day, the result of a lengthy and determined effort by Hillyard’s family to share her memories with a new generation of readers.

One remark sums up the importance of the book and story it tells of a vanished way of life. “You are the only person who remembers Abu Dhabi as it was, Umm Deborah,” she was told in a letter that arrived one day long after she had left the country. “The present always overlays the past so that it gets forgotten in a generation or so unless it gets written down.”

The author was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founding President of the UAE.

Sheikh Zayed’s tone reflects the warmth and intimacy of her relationship with the people of Abu Dhabi. “Umm Deborah”, the name acquired because of the presence of her daughter, at the time barely two years old.

Deborah Henley and her sister Susanna say that reprinting Before the Oil, first published with just 2,000 copies, had been discussed since 2008 but that her mother’s failing health intervened. She died in February 2014, at the age of 87, but left the literary executorship to her daughters, leaving the door open for a new edition.

It has taken two more years. The turning point may very well have been the decision to award her a posthumous Abu Dhabi Award for 2015, with the authorities encouraging the family to bring her story back into print once more.

Her mother would have been “deeply honoured” by the award, says her daughter. “And if she had been well enough to come in person, would have been overjoyed to have the opportunity to be with old friends, to be in Abu Dhabi and to see the changes development made possible. Abu Dhabi and the friends she had made there were dear to her.”

Those friendships were first forged in 1954, a time when travel to the Arabian Gulf was by sea and Abu Dhabi barely more than a fishing village, a place with a strong sense of community and loyalty but lacking almost any amenities – clean water, schools, doctors, even roads.

Oil, found in great quantities elsewhere in the Gulf, would be the emirate’s salvation but as the search entered its third decade, nothing had been found. A decision was made to begin looking under the seabed, in Abu Dhabi’s territorial waters. Tim Hillyard, an Englishman with a wife and new baby, was appointed to supervise the project.

Even at the time, Susan Hillyard’s decision to follow her husband to Abu Dhabi would have seemed extraordinary. Westerners regarded the Gulf as a hardship posting, something only the masculine constitution could endure. Umm Deborah did not share this view. The Hillyards would be the first expatriate family to live in Abu Dhabi.

The story of what happened next is told in Before the Oil.

Susan, who became fluent in Arabic, kept a detailed diary of her life here, but when the family departed in early 1958 – just as the first oil was discovered off Das Island – had no thought of making them public.

The idea of a book began to take shape after the untimely death of her husband Tim in the 1970s. He had always wanted her to set down her experiences in print, but after several attempts, the first manuscript was rejected by 53 publishers.

“I took the original manuscript out the chest where it had been lurking and burnt it,” was her description of what happened next. “And took up my pen afresh. Unlike the previous attempt I have enjoyed it.”

The second manuscript – which became Before the Oil – was written with intense care and sensitivity, the memories unclouded by the passing of 40 years.

“She was modest and self-deprecating,” recalls her daughter. “She was very aware that this was a personal memoir of a limited time span, and that others had covered the changes in personal memoirs which spanned a longer period, and in professional histories.

“Equally, she knew the value that a work based on day-to-day accounts in her diaries would have, as they were written at a time when only a handful of people were literate.

“She would consistently rebuff any idea that she had done anything special, but rather say that she was fortunate to be there at a turning point, and to be welcomed with such hospitality and in such friendship.”

The book has a special meaning for Deborah, who left Abu Dhabi barely after her fifth birthday. Reading it as an adult, she found that the account corresponded with many of her own memories: “of people, places, and events and of an overwhelming sense of kindness, affection and generosity – they were so.”

Of her early years, she says: “I think I can fairly say that this experience, and the upbringing my sister and I had, shaped my life. The values and traditions of the people of Abu Dhabi, their honesty and sense of proportion and sense of what as human beings we owe to others, and how we should behave, has been something to see others against.

“My parents shared these values. They taught us to be open-minded and communicated their curiosity and empathetic interest.”

Susan returned to Abu Dhabi many years later, both in the 1980s and 2007, to a place that was unrecognisable. Her daughter was here last year for the presentation of the Abu Dhabi Award by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

“I love the new city,” Deborah says, “but it is not what comes to mind when I think of my childhood, which was a place of open sands, barasti huts, a small shop with an aroma of baking bread, Qasr Al Hosn, the beach, our house, goats and my gazelle Smokey, camels and donkeys, the dhow, no cars but ours, and our Land Rover stuck in the sabqa.

“That the people of the modern Abu Dhabi are still interested in my mother’s account surprised her, and yet was very dear to her. I share that sentiment.”

Before the Oil has been republished in both soft and hard copy editions. To order the book and to learn more about the story behind it, visit www.beforetheoil.com.

For other stories about the history of the UAE, click here.

The National