There are many books written about Sheikh Zayed: who he was, his generosity, his legacy, and more. But Myrna Ayad’s recently published book by Assouline, Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy, about the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, takes a unique approach to the familiar father figure and tells the stories of ‘Baba Zayed’, the title given affectionately to the ruler by his people. From her own unique stories handed down to her as a young girl from her grandfather, to interviewing his children, and those who worked with the benevolent leader, Ayad gives us all a first-hand account of the man who is the Baba of a nation.
We met with Ayad in THAT Concept Store to talk about her new book, her inspiration, goals, and the challenges of juggling a career with motherhood. She has a purpose in life, she told us, to tell his story in the written word, spread his legacy, and share with the world the pillars of benevolence, kindness, generosity, tolerance, humility, and love that was modeled by Baba Zayed.
Ayad is a working mother, devoted to her children, but she is also a hard-working and intelligent woman who has devoted her life to supporting the cultural arts in the Arab world, telling stories, and giving what she has to the best of her ability to help others. She is, in essence, a living, breathing example of Baba Zayed’s lasting legacy on his nation and his children.
What led you to write this book?
I felt compelled, you know. There are a million books on Sheikh Zayed. I mean, I have some at home. You get a whole section of a bookstore on him. But all these books are about him as the ruler, as a founder, as a unifier, as a statesman, as a great Arab leader, but I really wanted to talk about him as a person. I wanted to paint a portrait of the human side, and I wanted that to be told through friends and family.
I noticed when you were speaking, you refer to him as ‘Baba’?
Yes. When we were kids growing up here, that was his name. His name was Baba Zayed, and it’s true. He is the father. We also heard a lot of anecdotes about him, and he really felt like a man of the people. You knew that if you went to him with anything, he fixed it.
Do you feel that you have an even greater connection with Baba Zayed because of the stories you’ve heard through these interviews? And is there any particular story that stood out?
The story that really struck me was the one that I’d heard in my childhood from my grandfather about Baba Zayed climbing the trees to protect the dates. When I was a kid, I thought ‘oh wow’, but then as I grew older, I found I was still awed. I began to wonder what kind of person would do that.
You cannot read this book or know this man without being touched by him in some way. It’s impossible. I dare you.
With every single story I have heard or read or recorded, the common denominator is this: unconditional selflessness and a desire to give. It’s laced into everything about him. It was always about other people. It was always about giving. It was just give and don’t look back, and in so doing, he planted seeds, and we are still reaping the fruit of these seeds today.
Also, because he ruled when he did – the seventies, the eighties, and nineties – in that time, we didn’t record as much. We didn’t have social media. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have tools to document all we had, and yet it’s the same stories being passed on again and again. I think it’s really important to continue to tell them and to cherish them.
I think it’s important to tell the human side as well.
Absolutely. Because I think that connects people even more, especially in a time when we connect through devices. I’m not connecting through a device here. I’m connecting through your feelings. You cannot read this book or know this man without being touched by him in some way. It’s impossible. I dare you.
You mentioned that he had a purpose in his life, and that you felt that your purpose was also to continue this great work. So what do you consider his (and your) great works to be?
There’s a couple of things about him that I admire tremendously. I really meant it when I said that I didn’t do this for any reason; I did it because I really wanted to, and because I really wanted everyone to know him. When I first started out writing about regional art, there was a lot of criticism from the West about our art scene being so derivative, so young, wanting to buy a culture, you know, things like that.
I was so offended by this and still am. So in doing this, one of the reasons is because I’m so proud of us. I was like, look at what we have. Look at the kind of person that we had in the sixties. Greatness is not new to us, you know? We have a tremendous, rich history of culture and heritage and crafts and craftsmanship and legacy. It’s not new to us and you should know this. Be informed.
I agree with you. As leadership leads, so the people follow.
I said this to Anas [Bukhash]. I told him being Emirati isn’t being a citizen. It’s a shift. It’s an attitude. To be an Emirati is to be gracious, to be tolerant, to be kind, to be selfless, and to think about the greater good. Those are some of the attributes of being an Emirati, I think, and Sheikh Zayed totally embodied them.
Where do you hope to go from this?
I’m publishing another book with Assouline. They have a travel series, and I did Dubai. I want to do some more books, you know. I feel very fiercely about the act of recording. I want more people to know about our arts and culture.
I’m very adamant about that, and if that means I have to do it through cultural strategy and through book publishing, then fine. That’s some of what I want to do. When you feel like you want to give, there is never an end.
My biggest enemy, honestly, is time. I always feel like I’m running out of time, and I always feel like I’m stealing time. I pick up my daughter from school. I have five extra minutes in the car, so I’ll get on the laptop. Or between her shower time and her bedtime and whatever else, still another few minutes. I just… I really have so much I want to do. I just hope I get at least the chance to do a little bit more.
I have a personal question for you. As a mother of two, like you, who also works, I hear you when you say it’s all about time. How do you juggle it?
Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Once upon a time, when I was directing Art Dubai, I remember during the week of the fair, there was a lovely Jordanian collector who saw me and she could see it was wearing me down. It takes a woman to see these things, you know.
She said to me, “I want to tell you something as a fellow working woman.” Her kids are now older and working. She said, “It’s not how much time you spend with them. It’s what kind of time you spend with them.”
My daughter finishes school at three. So I’ve taken a membership to Oli Oli, and I work in the noisy cafe for two hours while she gets to go to the workshops. And I just take her with me wherever I go. If I need to go to a gallery, if I need to go to the supermarket, or to see a show at the Louvre, or whatever, she comes with me. She’s here today. I wasn’t going to leave her home. I just tell her you need to behave. And then, I steal time at night.
Listen, you make it happen. You figure it out. Is it organized? No. Is it strategic? No. Is it messy? Yes. Is it like you want to kill yourself? Yeah, but what’s the option? What’s the alternative? You wing it.