Correction to This Article
An April 27 article referred incorrectly to Dubai as the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Earlier, the same article referred correctly to Abu Dhabi as the capital.

In U.A.E., Tradition Yields to Times

Fatima Zaabi, wearing a traditional veil used by some women in Fujairah, one of the seven monarchies of the United Arab Emirates, enjoys comforts that have become commonplace, from a cellphone and dishwasher to servants.
Fatima Zaabi, wearing a traditional veil used by some women in Fujairah, one of the seven monarchies of the United Arab Emirates, enjoys comforts that have become commonplace, from a cellphone and dishwasher to servants. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 27, 2006

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates -- First were the roads, Fatima Zaabi recalled, ribbons of asphalt that untwined a generation ago across a desert where life and its traditions had changed little in centuries. On those roads came the officials from the government of the newly independent United Arab Emirates. And with those officials, she said, came the doctors and their modern ways.

"It seems that the more doctors who came to town, the more diseases that came with them," she said.

Zaabi laughed, as she often does. It was a response that suggested a lost innocence tinged with pride. There is cholesterol now, she said, diabetes and blood pressure. What about migraines? she asked, baffled at the name.

"We didn't have them in the past. And if we did, we didn't notice them." She glanced at her adoring niece and smiled. "Back then, a woman didn't even know she was pregnant until it was five months and something was moving around in there."

Zaabi, known as Um Eissa, laughed again.

She doesn't know her age. "In the fifties," she said. "Maybe 50, I don't know." For her, age is measured in experience, not in years, and it is experience that gives her perspective. Zaabi is a matriarch, a Muslim, an Emirati and an Arab at a time in her country when all those identities are in flux, amid relentless modernization that began in the 1970s, propelled even faster now by the highest oil prices in history. She remembers what was, sees what is and is left reconciling the two.

Zaabi lives in Fujairah, one of seven small monarchies that make up the United Arab Emirates, along the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. When she was a child, fishing and farming brought in a few dollars. Today, the annual per capita income is more than $21,000 and nearly 10 percent of the world's oil is within the emirates' borders. There are 88 cellphones for every 100 people.

From beneath her black gown, Zaabi pulled out one of those devices and belted out a string of salutations.

"I'll call you later," she shouted. "I have guests now."

And back she ventured to a reservoir of memory, the relics of another life that she has collected over the years near her home.

"There weren't dishwashers in those days," she said. "It was all by hand, and it was torture."

She pointed to a lantern, obsolete with the advent of electricity. "We used this back then," she said.


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