Skip to main content

VIEW: The Man Who Made A Desert Bloom

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, January 01, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

“O Lord! We have crash-landed!” was Hafeez Khan’s first reaction when his aircraft touched down in what appeared to him the middle of nowhere. The plane was one that could land on unprepared surfaces, which is just as well since there was nothing remotely resembling a proper airstrip at that time in Abu Dhabi. Awaiting him was a king with a dream, a desert starved for greenery, and a dusty blueprint of a future that appeared far-fetched.

Today, three things strike first time visitors to the beautiful city of Al Ain — tree lined avenues, roundabouts and the absence of tall buildings. Al Ain, which is the other city in the state of Abu Dhabi, in the past bore an unfortunate resemblance to a gigantic sandbox.

It was not that long ago and Abu Dhabi state had just struck it rich with black gold. But no one could mistake any part of the Trucial state of the 1960s for the ‘garden city of the Gulf’. Khan may have felt that he had stepped back in time but his real task was to help usher in the future. What the king probably needed was a magician. He got the next best thing. Pakistani horticulturist Hafeez Khan soon learnt that he was an integral part of the future mapped out by Sheikh Zayed. This was despite the mournful tidings received from the community of international agriculture experts who did not think anyone could ever make this desert bloom; the land itself, which had remained a blank and inhospitable canvas since time immemorial, seemed to echo their skepticism.

He must have cut an impressive figure at the time with his university degree and a surname Khan, which the natives automatically assumed made him a direct relation of Ayub Khan — the then president of Pakistan. Al Ain alternatively made a startling impression on the young Khan. “There was nothing there. Nothing!” He repeats to quell the “but surely” rising in anyone’s mind. Times were different; life was difficult but, he adds, Pakistanis were respected.

Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan, originally from Pakistan, was studying in Beirut at the time. H H Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1919-2004) was the first ruler of the state of Abu Dhabi and later President of UAE. Reportedly, “members of the Al Nahyan family” have ruled since the beginning of the 18th century, “longer than any other ruling dynasty in Arabia.” Khan, who came out to help change a city’s fortunes, had originally packed for a year. Half a century later, he is still there.

Al Ain — the birthplace of the Sheikh — was destined to become a model city. When asked how long it took him to achieve this miracle, he replied with a faint twinkle in his eyes: “I’m still at it.” Khan is a gracious host and a veritable treasure trove of the city’s modern history. He fondly remembers the king who had a grand vision of turning Al Ain into an Eden and no qualms working besides his subjects to help propel his dreams faster. Khan who can easily pass off for an Arab now, knew no Arabic then and he and the king communicated through an interpreter. Till one day the king paid the interpreter to flee, forcing Khan to learn the language — fast.


He is eager to show off his adopted city and explains its many idiosyncrasies. Al Ain, unlike its sister city of Abu Dhabi, is vertically challenged because its ruler decided that there was enough space to grow horizontally instead of upwards. Khan muses over his late friend’s love for greenery that bordered on obsession; such was the king’s enthusiasm that in many cases the trees came first, the roads after. And then there is the saga of the poor sinking donkeys that led to a very important discovery. While selecting their flora, they had not catered for the fauna — grazing wild beasts. When the offending wild beasts were banished to the outskirts of the town, word got round that they had started to sink. The king acted on Khan’s information and subsequent digging at the site of Jabel Hafeet Mountain revealed a fresh water spring.

Finding Mr Hafeez Khan, who is now a UAE national, is not difficult. He continues to stay in the same compound, in another house built right next to the original one. He has seen many firsts, starting with his home which was the first concrete house ever built in the city, and a lovingly tended eucalyptus tree — the first ever planted by his old friend — the king — in 1962.


Visitors get to see both the tree and the historic driveway frequented by his king and rulers of other states.

They went straight from camels to Cadillacs,” he observes. It is hard to reconcile present day UAE with the medieval living conditions that existed just four decades ago. In their haste to enter the 20th century, Al Ain — the second largest city of Abu Dhabi — got its first luxury hotel Hilton in 1971 but camels remained the primary mode of travel.

Khan helped complete the king’s original quest and conquer the desert. He is fiercely loyal to the man who put his country on a fast track and immensely proud of what they managed to accomplish together given the challenging environment and desolate terrain. They left lasting footprints in the sand. Now his (Khan’s) daughter cheerfully carries on her father’s mission.

Comments

  1. Very interesting. Didn't know that the man who made the desert bloom was originally a Pakistani! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Shazia..i heard that he has been featured in a book , Trendsetters: 100 notable Pakistanis (am forgetting the exact title) but Ive not seen that in the local bookstores yet...

    I believe he's thinking of writing a memoir...theres a lot more left to tell....Hafeez Khan is 70 years young! & a wonderful story teller...:)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes indeed he is a wonderful story teller...A very nice person...Thank you so much Afrah Jamal for writing about my Nana.

    ReplyDelete
  4. My Pleasure...Hope all's well with Hafeez Sahib?

    Join my page for updates: www.facebook.com/afrahjhk

    Follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/afrahjh

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great informative site. I'm really impressed after reading this blog post. I really appreciate the time and effort you spend to share this with us!

    Al Raha Golf Gardens Abu Dhabi

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Afrah Jamal u write beautiful story on my uncal life

    Shahid

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are Welcome. He led a fascinating life.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Op-Ed: MQM in Hot Soup

First Published in Economic Affairs - Islamabad based Magazine (Pakistan) / Aug 2013
BY Afrah Jamal


‘What was it for
?' The BBC Two anchor asks Farooq Sattar (MQM’s Deputy Convener and Parliamentary leader) with an impassive face, referring to the stash of pounds found after a raid on Altaf Hussain’s London pad.

‘Whatever it was for’, he answers, at his inarticulate best.

The word ‘body bags’ ominously flashes on the screen, Mr. Sattar changes tactics; ‘we were all laughing’, dismissing it as a joke.

The savvy anchor runs more damning clips.

‘It is out of context’, Farooq declares. ‘There is no reference to context’, he adds helpfully.

But your own SC took notice…

‘o’ that’, ‘mere emotional outburst.

Unlike those ‘media types’ this party member would not speculate on the origins or purpose of the stash. He, like other loyalists filed away the latest episode under ‘more malicious propaganda’ and ‘sinister witch hunts’, accused BBC of falling prey to Taliban influences and conti…

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

Rebuttal: ‘Finding a Safe Place for Pakistani Christians’

Published in Global Village Space under the title: Is Pakistan as extremist as portrayed by the Western media?/ Sept 2017

‘Finding a Safe Place for Pakistani Christians’ by Marijana PETIR, Member of the European Parliament – finds systemic persecution in Pakistan’s backyard, implying a clear and present danger to minority groups while bypassing an inclusive society that honors and respects the contributions of its minority communities or a nation that deems the eradication of discriminatory laws and radical ideology an essential pillar of its counter-terrorism policy.

An impartial review must also consider the state funeral given to a German nun, the national flag flown at half mast as a mark of respect and the military men who carried her casket; remark on the monuments named after Christian martyrs who served their country, meet Roman Catholic Bishops or Franciscan nuns awarded highest honors and note Christian war heroes who are the pride of the nation. The civil society that forme…

The Book of Davis - Reading between the lines

Published by Global Affairs / Aug 2017

Raymond Davis is a champ. A team player, who puts the needs of his comrades in arms before himself. He is savvy. He is a man of integrity - a survivor - a trooper. Ray, the epitome of courage runs headlong towards danger and into a minefield - literally. He is all this and more. This is his story after all.

6 years ago, he was a trained Special Forces SF, undercover ‘contractor’, forced to navigate the cramped alleyways of Lahore on a routine mission – the details of which remain a mystery. His book ‘The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis’ with Storms Reback, revisits the scene of the crime to solidify his innocence and along the way take a few potshots at random players who helped secure his release. It’s a hair-raising ride.

His style is conversational, his demeanor - amiable. The case is still fresh in people’s minds and his intent to set the record straight ignites yet another round of controversy…

OPED: The Afghan Policy in Perspective

Published in Global Village Space / Aug 2017

True to its reality show inspired template, the Afghan strategy was rolled out after months of speculations, suspense and dithering. It used memorable taglines and inflated figures. ‘Agents of chaos’, sunk costs described as ‘billions and billions’ and going all in seeking victory against all odds. It offered to be tough on Pakistan, even as it was vague on the outlines and predictable in its deployment.

Reading between the Lines

This is essentially the new, improvised policy meant not just for Afghanistan but also Pakistan and India. With it the U.S. administration appears to have heeded the advice of keeping the enemy in the dark. They have also dismissed the necessity of keeping their allies close and have instead embarked upon a strategic vision that aims to expand the theatre adding India to the volatile mix and potentially widen the gulf between allies.

Yet it is not the public performance of the commander-in-chief that catches the e…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

VIEW: GOING DUTCH (2008)

Published in THE POST May 18, 2008

What does Cadbury have to do with 12 sketches and a 17 minute film? Nothing, really. Cadbury is neither Dutch nor Danish. But by now most Pakistanis - if not all - have probably received a text message stating otherwise. And thus begins a boycott campaign of all things Dutch or Danish. The self righteous lot, in their overzealousness, would acquiesce willingly. Yet, few who have received an email or sms that proclaimed the success of this boycott and lobbied for its continuity - or witnessed the demonstrations meant to convey outrage against both Denmark and the Netherlands for their alleged laxity in safeguarding certain religions’ sanctity - will stop to reflect on the virtues of pushing a hostile policy intended to coerce but neglecting to convince. Fewer still will bother to dig deeper and corroborate details of such episodes.

The cartoon controversy returned in 2008 – helped on by the aptly titled film ‘Fitna’- similarly denounced for its unflat…