AL AIN // The blood-curdling shriek of Habus war cries, the aching songs of the pearl divers and ghost stories about seductress djinns could be lost to the world if historians in the UAE rely entirely on the written word.
Ebooks combining text with multimedia will be the best solution to document the country’s intangible heritage before it disappears with the elders, historians said.
"This non-material heritage is very difficult to publish using paper," said Dr Yahia Mohammed, a professor of History and Archaeology at UAE University. "Writing in the local dialect is very difficult. However we do it there is going to be some difference in what people said and what we print."
Ebook documentation could preserve regional dialects and provide an affordable alternative to print books that could be accessed by a wider and younger audience.
In a country where the richest history is found not in objects or architecture but practised around the camel track and at wadi weddings, the need for multimedia documentation is crucial.
Dr Mohammed predicts a surge in heritage ebooks that will invite contributors and start dialogue on the country's history.
"We are not going to have one person to protect this heritage," he said. "It is going to be shared by the social brain of the society and this is what we need in this kind of heritage."
The digitisation of old books and archives will open up the discussion of the UAE's formation and early federation, said Dr Victoria Hightower, an American historian and specialist in the pearl trade.
"There's very little discussion in many ways of economics before oil, of politics before oil, or of life," said Dr Hightower at an eBook conference at UAE University earlier this month.
"In the GCC countries, digitising historical collections have the benefit of making the past accessible," she said. "It can also stimulate research and show people that life in the past and that this project of federation of independence was difficult and challenging and not everyone always agreed."
International archivists are keen to work with UAE institutes to unlock history buried in archives from Europe to the Far East.
"It doesn't revolutionise everything, it opens it so these resources are available everywhere," said Pascal Even, an archivist with the French Archives. "I think what is interesting is that the source of history on the Emirates is very dispersed."
Oral history is a national priority. The Sheikh Zayed Centre for Heritage and History has recorded more than 60 interviews that could be made available to the public using ebooks.
However, copyright enforcement in the Arab world lags behind.
UAE University has more than 100,000 electronic resources that include 20,000 academic books and 14,000 e-journals. Few are in Arabic.
"I think we're still moving extremely slow in terms of electronic resources in the Arab world because of all the problems the Arabic book is facing," said Dr Hassan Al Naboodah, dean of libraries at UAEU. "There's a big difference between here and the West. They have their traditional way of evaluating and reviewing any book they're going to publish. This is what we'd like in the Arab world."
Arabic-language publishers have been slow to adopt to ebook formats, preferring to use PDF files or digitised print. The few used at the university are PDF files.
More worrying is plagiarism and poor, or non-existent, referencing. "Copyrights here in the Gulf are OK but we have problems in other Arab countries," said Dr Naboodah, whose own writing has appeared under another man’s name.
English-language dominance in academia is a second concern.
If all of these issues are surmounted, there remains the issue of purchasing and publishing.
Ebooks in the country are readily available through academic databases and at no cost to university students. But online bookstores like Amazon and the iBookStore do not offer new works to UAE-based accounts.
"I think we are still moving but very slowly," Dr Naboodah said.