NA­TIONAL PRIDE, UNITY AND HAR­MONY IN THE SHI­ITE COM­MU­NITY

▶ Ba­harna in Abu Dhabi is the home of Shi­ite Mus­lims who moved to the UAE more than a cen­tury ago, writes Shireena Al Nowais

The National - News - - NEWS | EMIRATES -

The UAE is a patch­work of na­tion­al­i­ties, re­li­gions and eth­nic­i­ties. It is a place of tol­er­ance and peaceful co­ex­is­tence where mosques and churches have stood side-by-side for decades and a Hindu tem­ple is also on its way.

Oa­sis Hos­pi­tal in Al Ain, where Sheikh Mo­hamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Com­man­der of the Armed Forces, was born, was opened by a mis­sion­ary cou­ple in 1960. Its walls are adorned with bib­li­cal verses and the holy text is placed on ev­ery bed­side ta­ble.

But even be­fore hos­pi­tals, churches and an in­flux of res­i­dents from all walks of life, the UAE was com­mon ground for two groups of peo­ple who had been em­broiled in a re­li­gious con­flict dat­ing back to the sev­enth cen­tury.

These days, for most, Mad­i­nat Zayed is Abu Dhabi’s main re­tail cen­tre, a place that swarms with res­i­dents at night­fall in search of a bar­gain. But few know that the thin strip be­tween Zayed the First Street (formerly known as Elec­tra Road) and old Al Falah Street is an en­clave for most of the UAE’s Shi­ite Mus­lims, known as the Ba­harna area.

The Ba­harna are an Emi­rati tribe of Shi­ite Mus­lims who moved to the UAE in the early 1900s from east­ern Ara­bia but mainly Bahrain, hence “Ba­harna”. About 120 fam­i­lies moved there.

Nasser Al Nowais, chair­man and co-founder of Rotana Ho­tel Man­age­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, was raised in the area and is now in his seven­ties.

“From the be­gin­ning, we were part of the pop­u­la­tion and treated like every­one else. There never was any dif­fer­ence be­tween any­one,” he says.

Res­i­dent Ab­dulla bin Jaf­far has been liv­ing in the same two-storey house in Mad­i­nat Zayed since 1968. He is now in his eight­ies.

“Sheikh Zayed ruled in 1966 and one of the first things he did was re­move our shanty tents on the coast and build us mod­ern houses in the main­land,” Mr Bin Jaf­far says.

Be­fore the move, all Emi­ratis lived in houses of palm fronds and mud along the Cor­niche.

“So keen was Sheikh Zayed to keep Emi­rati fam­i­lies to­gether that he moved each tribe to a spe­cific lo­ca­tion,” Mr Al Nowais says.

The Ba­harna were moved to Mad­i­nat Zayed and the Ro­maithat, a well-known Emi­rati tribe, set­tled across from them.

“This is the orig­i­nal place for the Ba­harna,” Mr Bin Jaf­far says. “This has al­ways been my home; we might have spread out a lit­tle but this is the same house I’ve al­ways lived in.”

Six­teen years after they moved, Sheikh Zayed com­pen­sated the fam­i­lies and asked them to tem­po­rar­ily move out of their houses, which were start­ing to crum­ble, while the build­ings were ren­o­vated.

The street is di­vided into five blocks stud­ded with about 40 houses, each fly­ing the UAE flag from its roof.

Mr Bin Jaf­far, like every­one in the area, knows all his neigh­bours. “The younger gen­er­a­tion moved and got places out­side Mad­i­nat Zayed but we are still here,” he says proudly.

On each side of the street are dis­tinc­tive Shi­ite mosques and the “matam”, where spe­cial ri­tu­als are car­ried out dur­ing holy months. Here Shi­ite Mus­lims have lived in peace, free from con­flict or in­ci­dent since be­fore the uni­fi­ca­tion of the Emi­rates.

“This area is ex­tremely safe,” Mr Bin Jaf­far says.

While ten­sion and even con­flict ex­ists be­tween the two sects in coun­tries such as Iraq, Syria and Le­banon, the UAE has been a safe haven for the Ba­harna.

“That [con­flict] would never hap­pen here,” says Ab­dul­lah Al Sayed, 40. His fam­ily has lived in the neigh­bour­hood for decades, next door to the fam­ily of his fu­ture wife.

So close-knit are the Ba­harna that most marry their cousins, who coin­ci­den­tally live on the same block.

“When it is time for us to get mar­ried, you don’t have to look far,” Mr Al Sayed says, laugh­ing.

Even the cor­ner shop has been a stead­fast fea­ture in the neigh­bour­hood.

“I’ve been here since 1986,” says shop owner Kaniyan Ku­maran, from In­dia.

“I’ve been in the same spot and I’ve seen this area go from noth­ing but sand to the royal houses you see to­day,” he says.

Dur­ing months holy to Shi­ite Mus­lims, such as Muhar­ram, Ba­harna roads are con­gested with cars and wor­ship­pers head­ing to the matam.

“You would rarely see this sight any­where else in the world, but in the UAE this is al­ways how it has been,” Mr Al Nowais says. “Tol­er­ance isn’t a new catch­phrase; it is who Emi­ratis are. It is Sheikh Zayed. It is the Rulers and the peo­ple. It is in­grained in the soil and in the air we breathe; it is the UAE.”

Chris Whiteoak / The Na­tional

Above, Al Ra­sool Mosque, Ba­harna, Abu Dhabi; left, Ab­dul­lah Al Sayed; far left, UAE flags adorn the neigh­bour­hood

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