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The Empty Quarter Gallery presents photographs taken in 1962 by Japanese photographer Y. Kawashima
Y. Kawashima, Sankei Shimbun, 1962, Sheikh Rashid in his Office ©Y. Kawashima.

by Kimi M. Akai

DUBAI.- It was in November 1962 when a Japanese photographer Y. Kawashima set foot in the Trucial States, today’s United Arab Emirates. Along with his fellow journalist, he was on a mission to report on the wider Middle East for the Sankei Shimbun Newspaper, as Japan’s interest in the region had been fuelled by the arrival of first shipment of oil from Khafji on Saudi/Kuwait border in the previous year. Having landed in Sharjah’s RAF airfield, the pair of journalists made their way to Dubai on a Land Rover taxi to stay in Airlines Hotel near the Creek, the first and only lodging there.

Though Dubai then was a poor small settlement before the dawn of the modernisation era (the discovery of oil did not take place until 1966), it appeared to be a surprisingly lively place with trading and commercial activities. Kawashima who was enchanted by its energy, hustle and bustle “just could not help but pressing camera’s shutter”, thus capturing life in this harsh yet vibrant port town - from the ruler Sheikh Rashid in his humble “palace”, to the Creek, abra crossing, souk, wedding, school and so forth in his trusted Nikon F.

By a stroke of luck there was a Dubai citizen Mr. Abdullah Kamal living in the town who spoke fluent Japanese as he had lived in Kobe, Japan in the1920’s and kindly showed them around. This most unexpected encounter enabled the journalists to visit some key places including the palace where they met the ruler Sheikh Rashid, affording Kawashima diverse shooting chances within a short period of stay of just 5 days.

The collection was buried away and remained in the Sankei archive in Tokyo for nearly half a century until it was brought to the attention of Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Sheikh Rashid’s youngest brother in 2007. Thanks to Sheikh Ahmed’s kind gesture, the two former journalists were invited to revisit the emirate for the first time since 1962, and subsequently the collection was brought back to life in its place of origin.

As a trained professional photographer, Kawashima prides himself being interested first and foremost in people, which is evident in his Dubai collection. One can almost feel the emotion of someone in a picture or hear what he is saying. These evocative images telling many stories of yesteryear bring the past closer to us making the contents relevant today half a century later.

The photographer encapsulated not only scenes of Dubai but more significantly the spirit of those forward-looking, dynamic, open-minded enterprising people who despite the hardship of pre-oil era life, believed in tomorrow and were striving for better future. This is perhaps one of the reasons why his photos resonate powerfully with many - whether those of the old generation who have witnessed the phenomenal transformation or those new to the emirate who are simply amazed by the stark changes.

This “Spirit of Dubai” as Kawashima calls, may also help explain some basis of the emirate’s incredible journey from an impoverished sheikhdom to the dazzling futuristic city within a matter of one generation. Amidst of all stands tall Sheikh Rashid, the driving force who initiated the modernisation even before the discovery of oil, laying foundation of the emirate’s prosperity. Without this extraordinary leader, Dubai’s transformation to today’s ultra-modern metropolis renowned for diversity, tolerance, peace and innovation would not have been possible. Kawashima, myself and the team at the Gallery would like to present this exhibition as a tribute to Sheikh Rashid, the Father of Modern Dubai and its past. Step back in time and enjoy Dubai 1962.

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