Edith Patterson

A missionary’s return to a small oasis in the Middle East

As we witness the recent conflicts in the Middle East, it is good to be reminded of simpler times in a special country a few decades ago, when Westerners, even those of other faiths, were welcomed to what would become the United Arab Emirates.

Edith Patterson was one of the earliest missionaries to live in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, arriving in November 1962. By this time in her mission work she had lived in Egypt and Lebanon, usually in urban areas. Her focus was teaching, first English to Muslim girls, and later, reading and writing in Arabic to her female students. Thirty-four years later, in retirement, Edith returned to Al Ain visiting missionary colleagues and former students. Fortunately, Edith took many slides during her mission work and kept a journal of her return visit. These were the inspiration to record some of her experiences and observations.

When Edith first set eyes on Al Ain in 1962, it was after plane trips from Beirut to Bahrain then Dubai and finally a full day by jeep across sand dunes. The village of 5,000 was nestled in a valley known for its oases. Oil had been discovered in Abu Dhabi, but the riches that would benefit the area were still in the future. The first Caucasians had come to Al Ain only two years earlier, two doctors with The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM).

The local sheikh was very progressive. He had seen an American-run hospital in Bahrain and wanted such a facility for his people. On Edith’s flight from Beirut was a Canadian nurse and missionary also with TEAM, Gertrude Dyck, who was travelling to Al Ain as well to assist with the beginnings of Al Ain Hospital on land donated by the sheikh. Edith and Gertrude became great friends. On Edith’s return trip in 1996, it was Gertrude who drove on many of Edith’s travels around the area. 

1965 camel caravan brings charcoal to the village of Al Ain. Population was 7,000.      Photo: E. Patterson

Al Ain, UAE in present-day with population over 750,000. Buildings have been intentionally kept low-rise to reflect a more ‘rural’ feel than Dubai and other cities. It is called ‘The Garden City’ as its numerous oases nourish lush growth.

Both Edith and her new friend Gertrude returned to Bahrain for Arabic studies. Edith recalled later having particular difficulty pronouncing one sound. A colleague had her speak another sound while striking her throat, after which she was able to master the correct sound.

After a couple of years in Bahrain, Edith returned to Al Ain to begin teaching the reading and writing of Arabic to young girls and women. At the time there were no schools for girls, so she taught pupils mostly at their homes. The sheikh had given a former guest house to the Westerners for their accommodation.

Gertrude Dyck spent decades in Al Ain. In 1995 she published her memoirs and photos in a book called The Oasis – Al Ain memoirs of ‘Doctor Latifa’. It paints a detailed portrait of the life and culture in and around Al Ain when she and Edith first arrived, and the many improvements encouraged by Sheikh Zayed.

In 2001 Gertrude was made a Member of the Order of Canada. The Governor General noted:

“A devoted nurse, she has cared for countless people in the United Arab Emirates for nearly 40 years. Initially assigned to the first hospital in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, she faced challenging conditions with limited medical facilities. Delivering thousands of babies, she endeavoured to reduce the child mortality rate and helped to bring modern health care to the population. Tremendously committed to her patients, she was known as Doctor Latifa, or 'gentle doctor'. She is considered a Canadian goodwill ambassador and is now Cultural Advisor for InterHealth Canada in Abu Dhabi.” 

Edith and Fatimah, a 10-year-old pupil in 1966

From Edith’s 1996 journal:
March 28th:
In the evening Fatimah bint Ghareeb brought a dinner she had cooked in her own home to the mission guest house where we were staying and we partook of a banquet fit for a king. Arab food is more delicious than any other I have ever eaten. I almost wept that this had been prepared in my honour.

Fatimah brought two daughters with her, Miriam – a beautiful young girl of perhaps 10 or 11 years, and Sheikha who was about 6 years old. Thirty odd years ago I went to Fatimah’s home to teach her to read by the Laubach method. She was a bright pupil and progressed quickly through the primers. Since those days Fatimah has been doing university work and will soon have her B.A. degree.

She has nine children but is fortunate that her mother lives with her and helps much I’m sure. But Fatimah has learned more than what is sufficient for her degree. She has placed her life in the hands of the Savior who supplies strength when hers gives out and who has promised never to leave her or forsake her. For this I give special thanks to our heavenly Father.

After supper some of the TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) girls were taking pictures and Miriam, Fatima’s lovely daughter, sidled up to me and put her arm around my shoulders for the picture. I could hardly restrain my tears of joy and gratitude to my heavenly Father for this gesture of love from Fatimah’s daughter.

April 11th:
We went out to Fatimah’s house for dinner. That meal was such a pleasure for we met all Fatimah’s family – they were so friendly and the older ones could speak a bit of English. The youngest son, one year old, is adorable and was very busy just trotting around. The two older girls and one son are in university. Miriam, the 10-year-old sat beside me – a lovely little girl and so affectionate.

April 16th:
Fatimah took us to visit her new home which is still being constructed. It is a big two-storey house with one wing for her step-mother Sheikah bint Thorayya and family, then a separate wing for Fatimah’s family with lots of bedrooms for her 9 children. A majlis (sitting room) for Fatima’s husband is on the lower floor and has an adjacent bedroom. Sheikh Zayed’s purse absorbs all these building costs! He is a very wealthy man but also a wise leader.

“Miriam has proved to be an apt pupil – is now able to read and write a letter.” 1966 notation on Edith’s slide.

April 6th:
After visiting her parents, a brother and family, we went to see Miriam bint Ali who had been one of my brightest pupils. She is now married with ten children, 5 boys, and 5 girls, some of whom are grown up. She has a beautiful home and they own quite a bit of property. It was a joy to see her again. We are to spend time with the family next week in one of their rural places.

April 21st:
That evening at about 10 o’clock Miriam bint Ali came for a farewell visit. She too was laden with gifts – a very pretty large blue bed sheet with pink roses and matching pillow slips and large towel, a silver necklace and earring set, and some material for a long gown. They are too generous with their gifts but it is their custom.

Ryyah and first-born child, Edith’s student who wanted to learn to read before her baby was born. 

April 9th:
Ryyah, wife of Sleiman, came to visit me. She was one of my best pupils in the Laubach system I had used with young women and girls away back in 1966 and 1967. Ryyah was expecting her first child and wanted to learn to read before she had her baby. She succeeded! She was an avid student and a pleasure to know.
After thirty years I find she has twelve children, 2 or 3 grown up and married. We had a happy reunion. She lamented that I had forgotten so much Arabic!
April 12th:
We went to Ryyah’s place for a visit and supper. Ahmed came to fetch us and show us the way there. Then he insisted on bringing me back home and Ryyah and three of her children came along for the drive. They live in a part of the city that is not so familiar to us. Ryyah has a lovely family of boys and girls with three girls already going to university. I don’t know when anyone has shown me such love as Ryyah and her family. She gave us material for new dresses. 

“Rafeea learning to read. She is one of the ladies-in-waiting to Fatimah, perhaps the favourite wife of Sheikh Zayed. Photo was taken in front of her palm ‘barasti’”, 1966 (a barasti denotes a palm frond constructed dwelling typical of the Bedouin people)

Sheikh Zayed and his brother before him fostered establishing the Al Ain Hospital. One of the two American doctors who arrived in 1960 quickly proved his worth by calmly delivering a royal baby. Over the next decades the area’s infant mortality dropped from 50% to near zero.

Other initiatives of Sheikh Zayed, who ruled from 1966 to 2004, were being part of founding the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, endorsing formal education for girls, building schools, housing, roads and more hospitals. The UAE became known in the Arab world and abroad as seeking cooperation, dialogue and agreement out of conflict.

Sheikh Zayed spent much of his life in Al Ain before becoming the ruler of Abu Dhabi and subsequently the UAE.

April 20th:
This morning I was driven out to Zakher to have a visit with Mouzi (wife of Sheikh Zayed). She is always very lady-like and welcoming. She has a mansion of a place now in great contrast to the old house which had been her abode when I gave her lessons from the Laubach primer 30 years ago. She continued her education and reads the paper daily now.

April 21st:
I was surprised when someone delivered two pretty floral bags to our abode – one for Gertrude Dyck and one for me. They turned out to be gifts from Mouzi – a bracelet and ring set in gold. I was overcome. But in addition to my parcel was an envelope with $7,000 in it. I was astounded! Gertrude received a pretty ring and bracelet too. We appreciated this generous gesture of Mouzi’s very much.

I believe the envelope with money was Mouzi’s way of thanking me for the literacy lessons. She was an excellent student. I didn’t need the money and Gertrude and I wondered what would be God’s will in disbursing it. The next day it was decided to give most of the money to Minnie Van der Way up at Fujeira on the sea coast. She is having to build a new hospital on her present site as the old one doesn’t meet with the standards the government now sets. It is a maternity hospital and about 8 girls work with Minnie in manning it. We had such good fellowship with them when Gertrude and I visited there April 18-19th. Gertrude offered to deliver the money to Minnie by hand.

 Map of Arabia amongst Edith’s 1966 missionary slides, showing the Buraimi Oasis.

March 23rd:
Gertrude took us out to Hili to visit Aishah who is one of Sheikh Zayed’s wives. Since I had last seen her in a palm barasti thirty years ago, the contrast between that and her present royal home was almost unbelievable. Her furniture is that befitting a royal family – very regal. We discussed vitamins and she had a servant bring her vitamins, wanting to know what I thought. When she knew that I was in my eighties she concluded the vitamins I take must be working!

The grounds around her house were beautifully landscaped -the grass was a rich green, the palms luxuriant with foliage and the flower borders were watered daily. The whole countryside in what we used to call the Buraimi Oasis is almost a desert paradise. Many times my mind went back to the 1960’s when there were few trees and the sand stretched endlessly out to the horizon.

Edith in the library of school in Tyre, Lebanon

Author’s Notes -submitted by Anne Patterson:

Edith Patterson was my aunt. We thought of her as having an exotic life, arriving home every four years on furlough from the missions, laden with gifts from far off lands which I still treasure – a miniature leather camel and rider, Damascus table linens, colourful kaftans embroidered with threads of silver and gold, and Arabic coffee pots.

Born in 1914, Edith was raised on the family farm near Ripley, Ontario, the youngest of six children in a staunch Methodist home. Amongst her slides of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Arabia are many of that farm and her family, now scattered across southern Ontario. No doubt her students overseas were as intrigued by the scenes of Canadian life as her audience at churches in Ontario were of her foreign land images.

She spoke of learning to drink the extremely strong and bitter coffee, and I recall her telling our family of one episode in particular perhaps from her time in Al Ain or Bahrain. A sheikh asked her to become one of his wives – a great honour that she would have handled delicately. Perhaps to buy a bit of time to ready her negative response, she asked him why he wanted her as a wife. “Because I don’t have one with white hair.” came the reply.

Her slides reveal many side trips -to England, Ireland, Switzerland, Venice, and the Vatican. In the Middle East, she toured Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Petra. Sadly for us, only her journal of her memorable reunion with students and colleagues in the UAE remains.

Although she spent only a couple of years in Al Ain, it truly made an indelible impression on Edith, just as her mission work made on her students and friends.