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
“Miriam has proved to be an apt pupil – is now able to read and write a letter.” 1966 notation on Edith’s slide.
Ryyah and first-born child, Edith’s student who wanted to learn to read before her baby was born.
“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.
Map of Arabia amongst Edith’s 1966 missionary slides, showing the Buraimi Oasis.
Edith in the library of school in Tyre, Lebanon