From an ‘oil man’ to a historian

ABU DHABI — Five large folders of Arabic proverbs are craving for the attention of Falih Handhal in his office on the top floor of Emirates Heritage Club in Abu Dhabi. He worked for the club for a good number of years as a researcher, historian and writer, although when he first came to this country, about 40 years ago, he did so as an ‘oil man’.


Silvia Radan

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Published: Sat 21 Jul 2007, 9:06 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:15 AM

HandhalHandhal was born in Iraq on July 19, 1934 and almost two decades later his life entered into a new phase. On July 14, 1958 Handhal became lieutenant in the Iraqi Royal Guard of Honour Brigade.

One morning he woke up amid gunfire and witnessed the murder of the Iraqi royal family. As he talks about it, his voice still trembles with emotion.

“The revolutionaries attacked the royal palace and they succeeded in taking control. They chopped members of the royal family to pieces. The regime changed from a kingdom to a republic. I was 24-year-old, I received a bullet in my leg and I spent two years in jail. That was the beginning of a chain of events that changed my life,” he recalls.

International fame

Later on, Handhal wrote a comprehensive and factual book about the assassination of King Faisal II and his family, which brought him not only international fame and recognition, but also a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies from the Exeter University in the UK.

After his military career was over, Handhal went to the United States, where he graduated in industrial management, then returned to work in Baghdad.

“I thought I would live a new life in Iraq, but the new life was very much affected by the political situation and I had to leave again. This time it was for good,” he says.

It was 1968 when Falih Handhal came to live in Abu Dhabi. Through a friend of a friend he was offered a job as an office manager for a water well drilling company based in the desert, somewhere between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

“I came to this country when it was bare. On this island, Abu Dhabi, the only thing that existed was the old Qasr Palace. There was nothing else. The country grew in front of my eyes — not building after building, but brick by brick,” says Handhal.

Vivid memories

Images of his arrival in the UAE are still vivid in his memory. “All the way from downtown to the airport you couldn’t see a single tree or a building. Hamdan Street was there with a few two-storey buildings and work had just started on the Airport Road. The Corniche Road did not exist, nor did Khalifa Street. There was one building on Electra, now called Shaikh Zayed Street, and on the ground floor Electra Abu Dhabi opened a shop and even now people still call that street Electra,” explains the historian.

In those days, the best houses in town belonged to the British community.

“The British lived in prefabricated houses, fully air-conditioned, as they had their own generators,” Handhal points out.

As the emirate changed, so did the society and the biggest impact was felt on women. “When I first came here one could hardly see a woman on the street. If at all we saw a woman venture out, she used to be covered from top to toe and was not supposed to talk to any man. But look at the local girls now! They are educated, they work, they run their own businesses. I even saw a lady police officer,” he says.

Amazing achievement

Building a modern city in a record time of 30 years was an amazing achievement, but according to Handhal it would not have been possible without Shaikh Zayed. The historian remembers meeting Shaikh Zayed many times. “He was not the man to sit in an office, but to go to meetings and follow an agenda. He was a field man. You would find a stick in his hand and he would give orders. Zayed was like an army general in a battlefield,” he reminisces about the great visionary.

His first encounter with Shaikh Zayed was in the seventies. “I was drilling water wells in the desert. The shaikh used to travel between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and one day he stopped by. Come here! Come, you, Iraqi man! Where are you now? I’m at 30-40 feet, Your Highness. So will the water come now? Your Highness, you go to Abu Dhabi and when you come back you will find water here. Indeed, when he returned from Abu Dhabi he stopped and looked at the water in the well,” Handhal narrates the unforgettable experience.

A few years later he had another occasion of seeing Shaikh Zayed in action. “Abu Dhabi was hit by a massive storm. The waves came up to Hamdan Street. I will never forget. I was looking at the water when a car came, along with the army, and a man jumped out, with a stick in his hand. It was Shaikh Zayed! He looked at the sea and shouted: Come out! I want you to go and bring stones from Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah and drop them here. All the way like this! And he drew an arch with his stick. This is the story of how the Breakwater was built,” the historian reveals.

Writing career

Handhal started his writing career mostly out of boredom which turned into a passion. “Writing was a challenge. When I got the job in the desert, there was nobody around me. What to do? So I started meeting people and talked to them about their lives. I went to the desert, to the sea, talked to pearl divers about the problems they faced, the dangers they went through. For me, this became a hobby,” he claims. The first book Falih Handhal wrote in the mid-70s was a study about the colloquial Arabic of the UAE. “I did five years of field work, collecting the spoken language. When it was ready, I couldn’t believe my eyes — 700 pages,” recalls the proud author.

Classical Arabic

His research revealed that the language spoken here is much closer to the classical Arabic than any other Arab dialect. “That is probably because people here did not mix with foreigners as much as other Arab nations did in the past,” Handhal explains.

After the success of his first book, he went on to write nearly 30 volumes about the local heritage, history, poetry and literature. In fact, all these subjects became very close to his heart. “Now I’m concentrating on proverbs. I have about 1,000 of them, all in handwriting and I’m trying to classify them,” reveals Handhal.

Like all his other books, the collection of proverbs will be published in Arabic.

According to him, proverbs, like poetry, cannot be properly translated, because their beauty is not only in the message, but also in the sound, which is created through the rhythm of the wording.

“When I read their proverbs, I realise that these people might not have been much educated or travelled, but they saw the same good and bad in life as other people might have seen. What corrupts the society in your country, corrupts the society in their country also. This means that the basic life is the same everywhere,” concludes the Iraqi stalwart.

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