Design Book 50U has been published in the year of the 50th anniversary of the confederation of the United Arab Emirates, 50U tells the story of the seven emirates in 50 portraits of people, plants, and places. The book is the brainchild of local UAE entrepreneur and philanthropist Yasser Bin Khediya. Together with his daughters Roadha and Khawla, and Dutch graphic designer and specialist bookmaker Irma Boom, they have created a publication that celebrates the UAE’s extraordinary journey to become a global metropolitan city.
The book paints an intimate picture of life in the Emirates through the memories, hopes, and ambitions of its inhabitants. Factual accounts of the UAE’s history are told alongside human stories that are the result of extensive interviews with the young nation’s residents and visitors. Interviewees include: an astronaut, a female racing driver, a tailor, a fisherman and a former minister, among others. The Netherlands-based publishing team Archis, with a team of UAE editors led by Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, selected people from all walks of life to give a first-hand impression of what it has been like to grow up or settle in the region.
The book also features an extensive photo essay by Charlie Koolhaas which documents the ‘present’ of the UAE, and ‘where the people are’. Readers can also enjoy a study of the varied UAE plant life and species showing the rich flora that can be found in the desert.
We spoke with Khawla Bin Khediya to get a deeper insight into 50U and the labor of love behind it.
Saira Malik (S.M.): How did the idea for ‘50U’ come about and what were some of the conversations the family had around it?
Khawla bin Khediya (K.B.K): We came up with the concept of a book when my father (Yasser bin Khediya) had a meeting in 2020 with graphic designer and "Queen of Books' Irma Boom in Amsterdam and actually the idea came about through a discussion at her kitchen table with my sister Roadha.
To start at the beginning, it was a thought my father had about celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UAE and the idea came about through a contact of my father at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, an international architecture practice founded by Rem Koolhaas), who then introduced him to Irma. My father wanted to do something to document the past 50 years and look at the next 50 years. The notion of going to Amsterdam for a meeting came about as a suggestion from my sister, she is a graphic designer studying at Zayed University and Irma Boom is someone she really admires.
We all like the timeless nature of a book, you can keep it forever. We thought, why don't we focus on the people, give them a chance to add their own human angle to the story of the UAE?
As a family we feel that, in today's digital age, it is still important to produce physical books. Our past in the UAE has been told through oral history, now this is our turn to collect stories and contain them in beautiful print.
50U is a book that honors our past, documents our present and portrays the opportunities of our future. It is a publication that demonstrates the UAE's principles of tolerance and shows our country's rich diverse community. We hope that everyone, everywhere can enjoy reading it. I still get emotional when I read some of the fascinating stories in the book.
S.M.: Tell us about the name and cover of the book. What do they signify?
K.B.K.: The focus on the contribution from individuals to both the book and to the UAE is demonstrated in the title of the book “U”, a play on the word ‘you’ and a celebration of the “United” emirates. The mirror design of the book’s cover allows the reader to see their own reflection and to possibly identify themselves as part of the UAE story.
The design and production of the book itself is unlike anything else achieved previously; the paper is unique to Irma's design studio and takes 3 months to develop, the mirror cover took months of design work. Even the box to package the book has had its own design process.
S.M.: What was the criteria to pick the final 50 personalities that made it to the book and how difficult of a task was it?
K.B.K.: It was about selecting those who have made a significant impact, those who really are part of the fabric of the nation and those who represent the diverse community of the UAE. It wasn’t easy to limit the selection because there are so many potential contributors!
50U looks at the people, places and plants that make up the UAE and the portraits shown in the book are as diverse as the UAE community; from a historic British draughtsman to a present-day Emirati organic farmer. We wanted to show people from different backgrounds. We wanted to show gratitude by extending a spotlight on those people that otherwise might not have shared their story.
S.M.: What would you say the common theme is between all these people from different walks of life that are residing peacefully in the UAE?
K.B.K.: We think that it shows two things: diversity and tolerance. You will read about a wide range of people, different backgrounds, nationalities, ages. They all share a common love for our country despite their different experiences. And despite the wide range of nationalities in our country, we are all living and working alongside each other; that represents the tolerance in our society.
S.M.: From people to plants, why was it important to incorporate a study of the varied UAE plant life and species showing the rich flora that can be found in the desert?
K.B.K.: We wanted to highlight the human journey as well as the evolving landscape of our 50 years as a nation. Not many people globally are aware of how rich our desert is. There are so many different varieties of plants, that we wanted to include a section for them in the book.
S.M.: Is there one special story in the book that is particularly close to your heart and why?
K.B.K.: I love the story from Ramesh Shukla, the photographer, who captured the shots from the forming of the union when the UAE became united. He describes how grateful he was to have been present at that moment. He is so unassuming, he never thought he would one day become the royal photographer. He had such humble beginnings and he is still humble. But he is the source of such inspiration for so many people here, to follow your passion and celebrate important moments.
For me, all of the interviews still make me feel emotional. Some gave me goosebumps.
Whilst the content of the book features Emirati heritage and tradition with historic photographs and stories about our past, there are also a number of stories that feature contemporary culture, whether it is fashion, art, or technology.
It is important to say that many of the images have never been published before, these are archive photographs (such as the portrait of Sheikh Hamdan on the first page sourced from Yale University or the photograph of Sheikh Zayed that is being shown for the first time).
S.M.: What did you learn through the process of putting this project together?
K.B.K.: I have learnt so much through the process of this book. I am still learning!
My father and I have never produced a book before, we have never worked in publishing or design. But he had a vision and I wanted to help him realise it. Some of the greatest lessons have been through the stories told to us through the book.
50U Book was generously supported by DP World and A.R.M. Holding
For further information: www.project50u.ae
Words by Saira Malik
Images supplied by Archis Publishing