The following is excerpted from The Gulf Wife, the story of Jocelyn Henderson, one of the oldest inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates. Since she first arrived in the Trucial States with her husband, British diplomat Edward Henderson, Jocelyn Henderson has seen the region transform beyond all recognition.Set against the backdrop of cataclysmic wars and events that came to shape her life, The Gulf Wife tells the story of Jocelyn's remarkable life, her relationships with the families of the ruling Sheikhs, and the people she met along the way. From tumultuous political developments to meetings with celebrities and international statesmen, the book provides a window into the life of one of the UAE's most prominent expatriates and an intimate look at life in the UAE and all that has changed.


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I am now 93 years old and my home, even without my husband who first brought me here, is Abu Dhabi, thousands of miles away from my birthplace. I am one of the oldest and longest residents in Abu Dhabi. I have a few friends who, believe it or not, are actually older than me and still live here, but sadly this number is dwindling.

Whenever a newspaper comes to interview me, or when a young expatriate who has just arrived in Abu Dhabi talks to me for the first time, they all want to know: why did I stay? I am always surprised by the question, as I wonder why I would leave this place and go back and be an old lady in England. When Edward died in 1995, I had already been here for many years. While he was alive there were no immediate plans to return to the UK, so after his death it didn’t seem the right thing to pack up and leave my entire life behind. After a rather peripatetic life, it was a tremendous relief to be able to settle in a place, safe in the knowledge that the Foreign Office wouldn’t be packing us off to a new destination every few years. Abu Dhabi was our base. We came here when expatriate society and life was very much in its infancy. Edward and I and many other people were part of a growing community here. In many ways the old-timers of Abu Dhabi are the core of a whole society that has grown up around them, and we still feel connected to something that we built. If I were to return to England, I very much doubt that I would have such a sense of community and belonging. The attitude towards the old in England, as far as I can tell, is one of indifference. But here, people visit me and seem to enjoy talking about my experiences and the old Abu Dhabi that I remember so vividly. Even at my age, I still feel useful and that is something invaluable to me.

The royal family were very good to me after Edward’s death and they gave me their blessing and permission to continue living in our house at the Royal Stables for as long as I wanted. It was an offer that I didn’t even question. In fact, Edward had discussed this with Sheikh Zayed before he died, and had a letter to this effect.

I did return to the UK to pack up Edward’s things and I did try to envisage my life back on English shores, but it never really appealed to me. I wanted to keep up with life and the world around me and I didn’t think I could do that in England. I didn’t get a computer until I was 75, but I learnt to use it and the best way for me to contact my friends and family is via email – something that not all 93-year-olds are doing. But that is the effect of Abu Dhabi; it keeps you younger and looking forward, not back. I am grateful for this and that is why I stay.

After Lucy left home, like her mother before her, she headed to London and took up training as a nurse where she also worked as one for eight years. It seems that the innate pull towards Abu Dhabi extended beyond her parents and Lucy too returned to the country to work in the Corniche Hospital. Lucy also spent seven years living in Kansas before finally settling in the UK where she now works at the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre as the bone marrow transplant clinical nurse specialist. She is now married and has three wonderful children.

It looks as though Abu Dhabi is where my very long journey will end. All my life I have always loved the warmth of the sun on my face. Even as an old woman, stepping out onto my veranda and feeling the warmth of the Abu Dhabi sun still brings me great comfort.

I am too old to visit the desert these days, but that doesn’t stop me thinking about all those times I did. I will never forget the solitude of the desert, the quietness that sand brings with it. I have had many moments of perfect tranquility in the desert, listening to the sound of absolutely nothing at all. Some would call this a sense of peace.

If Edward were still alive, I can’t say that I would have taken the time to write down my memoirs and my thoughts on a life well lived. In many ways I was the perfect vision of an expatriate wife during his lifetime. I never spoke out of turn, I always made small talk with a visiting dignitary and put all my energy into entertaining Edward’s endless flow of visitors. I had a job to do as Edward’s wife and I enjoyed every minute of that role. But it was a role – Edward took the lead and I followed.

In this respect I am glad that I have committed pen to paper and recorded the memories that I have collected in all the wonderful places I have passed through. After all, this is my story and mine alone. The story of the expatriate wife is often a hidden one and that’s just as true today as it was years ago. As a woman who lives here, when you meet someone for the first time at a dinner party, pay close attention; one of the first questions will be, ‘So, what does your husband do?’ In London these days, I’m pretty sure that most women would be quite affronted to be defined solely by the job of their husband, but in expatriate circles the majority of married women are here because of their husband’s job, and they accept the question as normal. The ghastly term ‘trailing spouse’ is often used – but these trailing spouses, of course, all have their own stories of living abroad and all the adventures this can lead to, whether they are breadwinners or not. It feels good at my ripe old age to put my own angle on my life.

There are so many people remembered in this book. Some are royalty, some are celebrities and some are our wonderful staff. And then there are the stories of men and women who, like Edward and me, have lived rather extraordinary lives. These people may have high-ranking jobs in the Foreign Office, or be highly educated lawyers, for example, but they are not famous. They do not pop up instantly on a Google search. But they are present in the background of all the countries in which I have lived, and still are to this day. They have stories worth telling and worth listening to, especially in countries that have undergone great change, like the United Arab Emirates. These pioneers, who have witnessed such a transformation, have great worth in society, both here and further afield, as their stories are fascinating and at times unbelievable. These men and women have shaped entire communities. They are, in some cases, the forgotten, faceless and unglamorous anachronism of a Foreign Office long gone, but they have achieved more, seen more and influenced more than any famous reality TV star today. Edward was one of these people and I hope, to some extent, I am too. This book is for them, to keep their memory and their achievements alive – as I hope my memories and recollections will endure in turn.

I learned early on in my travels that as an expatriate, you can take what you want from life abroad. You can keep fit, throw gourmet dinner parties and relax while a maid cleans your house. But you should also bear in mind that you are surrounded by people who are so well informed about the Gulf – or anywhere else for that matter – that it’s both frightening and educating at the same time. They may not be in your tennis circle or your Thursday coffee morning, but they are there, often modest and unassuming. They don’t want their stories shouted from the rooftops or boasted about at parties, but you can seek them out and learn all you can from their experiences.

I have lived in Abu Dhabi for many years now. I am proud to call it my home. Anyone who has lived here a long time cannot help but have huge admiration for this city and country. One of its enduring qualities is that everything is always on the move. So much change has already happened, but you know that more developments and exciting changes are just around the corner. For an older person, it is important to be surrounded by fresh, new things because staying still makes you feel even older. The beauty of Abu Dhabi, coming from a 93-year-old who has been here for 35 years, is that you feel as if you are constantly moving, even if you are actually staying still. Such is the dynamic nature of this city, and indeed, the country as a whole.

By living here amongst it all, watching it transform, I have learned its history, witnessed its milestones, and I like to think that in a small way, I have helped lay down a foundation for its future. In the years to come, I hope to be considered, like my husband before me, among those who made a difference to life here. If nothing else, on a still afternoon in the vast expanses of the desert, I hope that I left a small footprint on the sands of Abu Dhabi, of which I am so fond.


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The Gulf Wife is priced at AED 125.