For nearly five decades, Abdullah Nasser Al Amiri has been travelling to India. He now offers a unique perspective on the country’s common bond with the UAE
When Abdullah Nasser Al Amiri was 15 years old, he was overwhelmed by the fascinating city of Mumbai — but he did not think that he would fall in love with India for the rest of his life.
Back then, in 1969, Al Amiri was saving his pocket money to visit India. Now the Emirati is 63 and the author of On the Banks of the Ganges.
The first photograph a reader will see in Al Amiri’s book is a group of Indian men relaxing on the roof of a house opposite the author’s house in the 1960s, and then the second photo of him in 1969 during his first visit to Mumbai.
Abdullah Nasser Al Amiri shown outside the Taj Mahal Palace, the iconic sea-facing landmark hotel in South Mumbai
“There is a special bond between me and India over the last 40 years. My personal experiments, stories of elderly people in India, reading books and watching Indian movies in cinema theatres in Dubai were like brush strokes on a painting of my life,” Al Amiri told the Weekend Review.
Al Amiri visited India for the first time during his summer vacations with a group of school friends, just to see the strange and fascinating world there.
Abdullah Nasser Al Amiri at the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke near Bikaner
He didn’t think that he would study in its universities in the future nor that he would bond with Indian culture, its myths and beauty in the passing years.
“Emirati and Indian society have many common things which have sustained this bond over many years. It is a long history between the two nations, and both are peaceful and tolerant. Indian people, where ever they go, are always keen not to interfere in the internal matters of the countries they live in. Emiratis and Indians respect and accept each other,” Al Amiri says.
Al Amiri and his friends outside the Taj Mahal in Agra
Nearly 40 years ago, the UAE’s founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, planted the “Amattas” tree at Raj Ghat — a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi — during his first official visit to India. That tree has become an example of the strong relationship between the UAE and India through the years, just as the roots of the tree went deeper into the soil.
“India offered the late Shaikh Zayed different species of trees to choose [from], and he picked the “Amattas” because he was a wise leader. This tree is known for providing good shade so people can lay under it. Amattas’ leaves can be used as herbal medicine. He wanted to plant this tree as a symbol to refresh the relationship between Arabs and India. We need India just as India need us.”
In his book, Al Amiri writes about his numerous visits to different parts of India and is proud that now he knows India better than some of his Indian friends.
Al Amiri having a conversation with Rao Laxman, a karak tea seller and author of 24 books
He talks about his stay at the Oriental Hotel in Mumbai, from where he used to walk to his favourite cafe in Mumbai’s Crawford Market — Badshah, the preferred juice centre of many Gulf nationals.
“When I was young, I enjoyed the buildings and Indian’s traditions. I respect Indians and their rituals and different religions,” Al Amiri tells Weekend Review.
As Mumbai is a centre in trading of pearls, it used to get pearls produced by Gulf countries, and that, along with gold, were the main sources of trade between India and the Gulf. The pearl trade nearly vanished with the introduction of artificial pearls — but the bond remains the same.
A taxi driver in Mumbai takes a break… One of the photographs in On the Banks of the Ganges by Al Amiri
“The Indian character is emotional and loyal to traditions and religion, and they are peaceful and have no bad intention towards others. It’s really close to the Emirati character in many aspects,” Al Amiri notes. However, he believes the new generation in Gulf countries knows little about India, its culture and civilisations, and they only know them as an important source of Asian workers. Similarly, many young Indians think that the UAE and other Gulf countries are an important source for work or for making fortunes.
“The young generations of the two countries must know the history between the two countries and read about the cultures on both sides. It is of a mutual benefit for both sides to understand why we have this strong relationship, which our ancestors started a long time ago,” he says.
Keeping a pen and notebook at the ready, Al Amiri wrote many notes on what he saw in India through the years and, a year ago, decided to put together the notes in a book and pubblish it as On the Banks of the Ganges.
“The Ganges River is sacred in India and millions perform their prayers on this river. They are peaceful and smile. In India, all you have to do is just sit on a chair in a balcony and watch traditions pass by. Many strange and joyful things happen when Indians celebrate and practice their religions. I still am curious when I watch them celebrating Diwali, which marks the defeat of evil.”
He said that one of the common things shared between Emiratis and Indians is food. Indian cuisine has a lot of variety just like Emirati cuisine. The use of spices in the food is a must for Indian food, just like for Emirati food. “Just have a look at their food and ours and you can see it’s the same in many dishes. We still import rice from India and we like to use our hands when we eat, just like Indians.
“They even made us addicted to their magical drink, karak chai [strong tea]. Sailors and merchants liked karak tea in India and transferred it to our lands, and many Indians who arrived in the Gulf brought their drink. It’s become our favourite drink in the morning and at nights. Karak tea is one of the Indian cultures that has found a spot in Emirati culture,” Al Amiri says.
In his book, Al Amiri recounts how he met a karak tea salesman on the streets of Delhi but was shocked to discover that he was an author and had published many books and novels.
“Mr Rao Laxman used to sell karak tea on the streets and I used to have a cup from his humble shop for 15 years until one day I saw a report on a news channel that he is also an author and wrote many books. I went again, sat with him, and talked about the 24 books that he had written. It was a joyful time to have amazing karak tea and listen to him talking about his philosophy of life and his books. He is a simple and humble person with a solid background in a civilisation and history that goes back centuries — just like most of the Indian people,” Al Amiri says.
Al Amiri stresses that the UAE is always looking to strengthen the relationship with India on all levels, whether it is security, energy, investment or trade.
“In 2014, the economic partnership between India and UAE reached $70 billion and it will be $100 billion in the coming years. The UAE is the third largest trade partner for India, after China and the United States. We have nearly 6 million Indian nationals in the GCC now. That shows how deep the relationship is,” he says.
He notes that India will push its major companies to participate in Expo 2020 in Dubai, an opportunity to display their products and technology.
“Expo 2020 is important to target for big Indian companies to participate in, and we must encourage that and be a strategic partner for India as it looks to the future. My Indian friends told me there are many things to discuss for the benefit of the two sides during the Expo.”
The 316 pages in Al Amiri’s book have photographs and tales from India collected during his visits there. Perhaps one of the strangest things he witnessed in India was when he visited a temple for rats at Deshnoke, 30 km from Bikaner, in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
“The temple is called Karni Mata and you can see thousands of rats walk freely without fear and feed on different kinds of food. It is one of the strangest places I have ever visited in my life. India still mesmerises me on every visit.”
The book offers a fascinating and personal account of the relationship between the two nations, exploring the ties that bind the two peoples together.
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