“Sometimes the biggest stories are in the smallest objects,” --- Abdullah Khoory, president of the Emirates Philatelic Association
Once, not long ago, a time often sentimentally remarked as “simpler” and “slower,” before the invasion of the virtual world and the domination of the internet, stamps were like royalty, ambassadors of a country to another. Visual colorful stories that captured and embodied a country’s values, its sentiments, and a celebration of a particular time or place.
A stamp was often the first introduction anyone had to a far away place.
Reviewing a collection of stamps is like reading a history book, with important anniversaries, events and figures captured on small intricate self portraits and designs. But unlike before, where one needed a stamp to send any letter or package, stamps have become relics of modern times, heirlooms of a vanished age.
Due to the loyalty and perseverance of stamp collectors, often unfairly portrayed as geeky collectors, postal offices here in the UAE and world wide still print commemorative stamps from time to time to appease the thirst and love for these little decorated pieces of paper.
Abdullah Khoory is one such loyal collector, who has thousands of rare stamps in his collection, and who keeps this hobby and art alive by organizing exhibitions here and world wide as the president of the Emirates Philatelic Association.
He is never seen without a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers.
“Not for plucking hair, I assure you,” he laughs. With special edges, the stamp tweezers are used to move stamps without damaging them.
The first clarification that this collector since the age of 8 makes is that he is not “just” a collector.
“Philately is more than jut stamp collection. It is the study of stamps history and their preservation,” said the Emirati from Dubai. “Interesting stories can be found in any country’s stamps, and our stamps are no exception.”
The world’s first postage stamps were issued in England in 1840, and in the U.S. in 1842. While here, the postal history starts with the British. The first Post Office affiliated to the Indian Postal Services was opened in Dubai in 1909 as part of a group of postal agencies in the Arab Gulf region. At first, United Kingdom stamps were used to cover postage fees.
They included portraits of English Monarchs like King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1932, the first official stamped letter was sent out from Dubai, via the Sharjah airport. Mr. Khoory added that Sharjah itself has a storied postal history. As early as 1932, the idea of establishing an airmail post office in Sharjah was hotly debated, but seems to have been abandoned 10 years later for political reasons. It was not until a revival of demand in the 1960s – with Bruce Conde, the famous philately expert, leading a feasibility study – that Sharjah finally opened its first post office in 1963.
“An interesting fact many miss is that after the division of India in 1947, the branch office in Dubai was taken over by Pakistan, where stamps of India over printed with 'Pakistan' where then put into use,” he said.
In January 1961, Dubai issued the first set of stamps announcing the beginning of the region's independence from the United Kingdom, under the name Trucial States. Each of the Trucial States then began issuing their own stamps.
“Here we have a rare Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan stamp, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi,” says Mr. Khoory, pointing to a portrait of the late ruler and brother of founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed.
From 1963 to 1964, the rulers of the different emirates started appearing on stamps. Around the same time, Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn was featured prominently stamps. It stands right in the heart of the capital. The solitary white palace of Qasr Al Hosn, or “Fort Palace,” served as a fortress, a royal residence and the seat of government of the Al Nahyan rulers of the emirate of Abu Dhabi from 1795 to 1966.
“Each emirate had its own set of interesting stamps; often, the images on the stamps had nothing to do with the emirate itself,” chuckled Mr. Khoory.
The Emirate of Dubai issued its first set of stamps in 1963, followed by the Emirate of Sharjah in the same year; and in 1964 the emirates of Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah issued their own stamps. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi continued using British stamps until 1964, when it released its first set of stamps but continued to use the Rupee currency until January 1967 when it issued its first set reflecting full independence. Those first Abu Dhabi stamps were priced in Arabian Gulf rupees and included oil exploration and gazelles as well as four portraits of Sheikh Shakhbut and two of Al Hosn. A second series followed on April 1, 1967, after the accession of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.
But then, you have a different group of stamps that would raise an eyebrow or two.
Dinosaurs on Fujairah stamps, penguins on Umm al Qaiwain stamps, space ships and astronauts on Dubai stamps, and various illustrations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary from Sharjah paint an interesting, and perhaps, an un-representative portrait of the UAE.
Some of the oddest stamps issued throughout the history of the country, before and after its unification, are explained in the bookTarekhTawabee al Emirate, the first stamp history book of its kind to be published in the UAE in 2010.
The book's author, Moutaz Mohammed Othman, is also an active member of the Emirates Philatelic Association, which has grown to more than 250 members since it was established by ministerial decree in 1996. (Emirates Philatelic Association has been managed from the main office in Bur Dubai - next to Dubai Museum - which was donated by the Dubai government and became fully independent from Emirates Post in administrative aspects. It is also a member of the Asian Philately Union and the International Philately Federation.)
“There were some stamps with nudity, that somehow went uncensored until somebody spotted the in-compatibility of the stamps with Islamic values,” said Mr. Othman, who has a collection of semi-nude stamps of Marilyn Monroe that he hasn’t been able to exhibit.
“Before the union it was more chaotic, with each emirate printing its own sets of stamps by commissioning them abroad, like in the UK or US,” said Mr. Othman. “And so often the stamps had nothing to do with the actual emirate and were quite irrelevant to local culture.”
Images of ancient Greek and Roman statues, religious figures and biblical images, such as Adam and Eve, and depictions of the latest advances in technology, including space ships and metros graced local stamps.
For instance, since space travel was big in the international news, Dubai decided to issue a wide collection of “space stamps” in 1964 in honour of astronauts. Being an important port on the trade routes, Dubai’s stamps were among the most diverse. Costs were about 2 rupees.
Meanwhile, Fujairah used to issue extensive collections of stamps on animals, birds and insects, including mosquitoes and butterflies. Dinosaurs and mammoths were popular, issued up until 1972. Even after the unification, some animal collections continued to be issued due to popularity. Costs were all about 1 riyal, or less.
In general, flowers and insects were frequently used as images. And while those older stamps included indigenous creatures, such as gazelles, sometimes they featured other animals, including the Russian dog Laika, the first living creature sent to space in 1957 as well as exotic animals like tigers and zebras.
The 35th US president, John F Kennedy, was such a popular figure on local stamps that each of the trucial states printed their own version of JFK. In 1964, the year following his assassination, Sharjah printed stamps featuring JFK with the Statue of Liberty.
Another series featured the politician with his family, “Ajman” printed clearly across the bottom. Other figures found on 1960s local stamps included the leader of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, and the “father of India,” Mahatma Gandhi. There were also commemorative stamps issued in 1971, a year after the death of the pan-Arab leader, the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
“After the union, the stamps were more uniform and controlled, with careful images of the rulers and various national events,” said Mr. Othman.
Under the UAE appendix, Mr. Othman included a collection from 1980 that was pulled immediately from circulation: it had an illustration of an open Koran on the stamp, and others with the wrong dates and names on it. One stamp misspelled the town of Al Dhaid, as “Al Lazez,” which means delicious.
Also the fact that a stamp that once cost less than a dirham is now worth thousands of dirhams, illustrates that perhaps this “geeky” hobby is quite lucrative, not to be so easily dismissed.
In 1972, a Federal Decree established the General Postal Authority under the Ministry of Communications, which issued the first set of stamps bearing the name of the United Arab Emirates in 1973. These stamps expressed the common idea of unity of the seven Emirates under one flag and one logo.
There was also a set of stamps issued on the occasion of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan assuming the reins of power. They remain a controversial set.
“There are lines across the Sheikh Shakhbut stamps, and they would be used alongside the new stamps until they were no longer valid,” explains Mr. Khoory. “It is symbolic of the change of power.”
Then there were special occasions stamps, like literacy days, International women day, human rights day, sports related occasions, regional meetings, and road safety, a topic particularly important to the area.
“Road safety stamps were issued five times, but it is hopeless. Drivers remain reckless,” laughs Mr. Khoory.
Then there are those stamps with errors, or that have been pulled out of circulation quickly, and they are the rarest of the rare.
“That is a whole other session and a whole other story,” he smiles.
Besides stamps, Mr. Khoory has rare letters, including some that were sent to his grandfather and important families across the UAE. Letters, postcards and parcels were so much part of life for nationals and expatriates that no one gave them a second glance.
Pulling out one, dated April 18, 1932, he reads a few lines that tell of a different time in the place that was later named UAE.
“We don’t have much food. Not much bread. ...The rations are small...when can you next come and deliver some important items as we have discussed in previous letters?” read the letter, carefully written in Arabic, with words and terms that have become archaic.
The need for wheat, medicine, oils, and details of amounts and rates were written up carefully, illustrating a way of life that is restricted and struggling.
“I would have to go back to the elders to understand half of this letter. That in itself is quite telling,” he said.
And as to the notion that collecting stamps is a dying hobby, he points to a book put together by an Emirati youth, Nasser bin Ahmed bin Eisa Al Serkal, 21, where he explains this hobby, how does one collect stamps, terminology, and features some of his own collection of stamps.
“Stamps are the visiting cards of nations,” writes Nasser. “You can get your friends to join in by helping you collect stamps from the letters their families received or still receive,” he says.
Text and photographs — Rym Tina Ghazal, Writer/Researcher