Personal history | Abu Dhabi

Archivist in the Gulf

Historian Frauke Heard-Bey moved from Berlin to Abu Dhabi in 1967 for love. More than fifty years later, she calls the Emirates her home - and has helped build up an entire national archive.

Black and white photo shows a young woman on a camel in a desert landscape. The woman is wearing long white trousers, a blouse and half-length blonde hair.

In 1969, Frauke Heard-Bey was one of the first Western women to travel overland to Liwa Oasis in the south of the UAE

I never expected to spend most of my life in Abu Dhabi. But life is unpredictable. I was born in Berlin in 1941, right in the middle of the war. My father, who was in the navy, put my mother, my sister and me up in a flat in Gera at the time. I still have snapshots in my mind, even though I was still very small: how I was lying in my little pram, how the national radio was playing and how one day a tall man in uniform appeared. There were hardly any men in our world, which is why this image is deeply imprinted on my mind. It was to be the last time I saw my father. He fell on Boxing Day 1943.

Despite everything, my childhood in Thuringia was somewhat sheltered. There was a garden and once the caretaker gave us a rabbit. But of course there were also hard times. When my sister started school, all the children had to bring coal to heat the school.

When I was eleven, we left the GDR illegally and then lived in Rottweil. I spent the last two summer holidays of my school years as an au pair in England. There I also met a young British man called David Heard. We fell in love.

At the end of the summer, he hitchhiked to Rottweil to visit me. Later he studied physics and geology in England, while I started studying history, political science and English in Heidelberg. In the evenings we played the guitar in the forest, that was in the early 1960s. Then I moved to Berlin, where I did a PhD on the political upheavals in the capital after the First World War. In the meantime, David applied to an ad: “Leading oil company is looking for science graduate” - shortly afterwards he landed in the middle of the desert, in Abu Dhabi.

“From a school for girls in Berlin I went straight to a bungalow in Abu Dhabi”

It was by no means clear at the time that I would follow him. I didn't want to commit myself and my research fascinated me. But David didn't stop writing me letters. Then in 1967 we got married. Five days before our wedding I had the oral exam for my doctorate. From the girls’ school at Ernst-Reuter-Platz in Berlin, I went straight to an oil company bungalow in Abu Dhabi. There was only glistening white sand and the sea; it was exciting.

First I threw myself into learning Arabic and at the same time shortened my doctoral thesis, which was to be published. So there I sat in the desert, compiling an index on Berlin politics. Shortly after my arrival, the political drama took hold: Great Britain decided to withdraw from the region.

The whole world was reporting the story and I realised: I was sitting directly at the source and could inform myself comprehensively. I quickly found a place to go, because the Center for Documentation had been founded in the old fort of Abu Dhabi, a kind of first archive of the Emirates.

The later Foreign Minister, Ahmed bin Khalifa Al Suwaidi, had the task of collecting all the texts he could find. Then I showed up. I noticed that books kept disappearing in the small library because there was no registration. I addressed that - and was given the task of cataloguing the archive.

In the 1970s, the old fort was the heart of the administration and the communication centre of the young state. Bedouins with falcons on their hands, politicians and diplomats appeared in the corridors. Once, Yasser Arafat ran into me. Over the next fifty years, I helped to build up the ever-growing archive that is now the National Archives.

I was the only woman and the only European, but I never felt out of place. I also had contact with the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayid. At ceremonies like the Islamic Īd, he ostentatiously shook my hand to highlight that they were not a small-minded people who do not respect women. 

For many people who worked in the oil industry, Abu Dhabi was just a short stint. But David and I just stayed. Our children grew up there. I started writing books and delving deeper and deeper into the history of the Emirates. In the last few decades, however, an incredible amount has changed.

Where in the 1960s there was only a small village with palm huts, now skyscrapers rise into the sky. We used to sit on the floor with friendly families, now they live in fantastic buildings in pure opulence. But when I think of Abu Dhabi little house with our books and the garden. For me, that is the place I call home.

As told to Gundula Haage