This is no ordinary commemoration of the country we call home

When Yasser Bin Khediya travelled to Amsterdam with his daughters a few years ago, he approached Dutch book designer Irma Boom with an interesting idea. “I had been thinking about celebrating the UAE’s 50th anniversary, which was marked last year, through a timeless book for quite some time,” recalls Yasser. Over a conversation at her kitchen table, Irma agreed to join Yasser’s project of creating a tome to mark the country’s landmark anniversary, but on one condition—this would be no ordinary commemoration.

The resulting book, 50U, is a meditation on five decades of the nation’s legacy, explored through a mix of photographs, interviews, and personal anecdotes from around the UAE. “I wanted the book to be interesting to people both inside and outside the country,” explains Irma. “Most importantly, it needed to be filled with people. And if 50 years, why not 50 portraits?”

Photograph of a local woman, taken from Eve Arnold’s The Pioneer of Photojournalism section of the 50U book

Launched by Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, at Alserkal Avenue in April this year, the 352-page book is beautifully curated to reflect the lives, landscapes, and history of the seven Emirates. It brings together the creative vision of Yasser, his daughters Khawla and Roadha, Irma, her publishing team at the Amsterdam-based Archis, and Dubai-based editors Anna Seaman, and Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib.

The concept behind 50U was to highlight the human journey behind the UAE’s development from a desert to a metropolis. “The book features people who’ve been a part of the country’s path, and the places and plants that have grown out of our land,” Khawla holds. “50U presents this—it honours our past, documents our present, and portrays the opportunities and youth that make our future.”

These are the people who’ve been a part of the country’s path—the places and plants that have grown out of our land.Project Director Khawla Bin Khediya

Anna Seaman, an arts and culture journalist, who has been living in the UAE for 14 years, shares that the idea was to create a book that you can’t predict before you open it. “We wanted to show the UAE from a perspective that readers weren’t expecting,” she says. “It’s a book you can really dip in and out of—a vernacular story that doesn’t focus on the milestones, but on a history told through the eyes of the people.”

The images in the book are as diverse as the UAE community, from featuring a British draughtsman to a present-day Emirati organic farmer. Speaking about the curation process behind collecting the perfect 50 contributions to the book, Anna states, “The 35 people we interviewed were almost purposely chosen not to be curated. Of course, there are figures in the book who are well-known, but we also made sure to speak with everyday people, from bakers to shoemakers to teachers. It also shows the cross-cultural nature of the country and explores how it feeds into the fabric of society here.”

Hotel construction on the shores of the Arabian Gulf in April 1970

Khawla adds, “Whilst the content of the book features Emirati heritage with historic photographs and stories about our past, there are also a number of stories that focus on contemporary culture, whether it’s fashion, art, or technology.” The book connects the past to the present, including screenshots of modern-day WhatsApp conversations between Irma and a young Emirati school girl.

The images, many of which have never been published before, have been shot by an impressive roster of photographers that includes Eve Arnold, Ammar Al Attar, and Charlie Koolhaas. “The design and production of the book itself is unlike anything else achieved previously,” notes Yasser. “The paper is unique to Irma’s design studio and takes three months to develop. The mirror design of the cover also allows the reader to see their own reflection, and to possibly identify themselves as part of the UAE story.”

It’s a book you can really dip in and out of—a vernacular story that doesn’t focus on the milestones, but on a history told through the eyes of the people.Project Editor Anna Seaman

“The cover, with the metallic ‘U,’ came first,” Irma explains. “Many covers were made after that, but in the end, we went back to the very first design.” Yasser adds, “The focus on the contribution from individuals is demonstrated in the title of the book ‘U’, a play on the word ‘you’ and a celebration of the ‘United’ Emirates.”

Each interviewee was asked to bring an object representing their relationship to the UAE. The book’s creators ponder with amusement and fondness on the stories behind the chosen objects, which included prayer beads, an axe, paintings of horses, a Special Olympics wristband, and pieces of coral stone. Yasser names the ghaf tree, “the true symbol of our country,” as his own object of choice.

Bedouin husband and wife in their tent in 1970

Can we expect a 100U book? “It has been a fantastic journey,” Khalwa reminisces. “But it doesn’t stop here now that the book has launched. We want it to serve as a resource in museums and educational institutions, and as a platform for cultural exchange to help provide a perspective on the UAE. This is just the beginning.”

Visit Project50u.ae and follow @50u_book on Instagram


Images Courtesy of Eve Arnold Papers (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library); Photography by Eve Arnold