ABU DHABI // A pioneer in a field which includes only a handful of Emiratis, Abdulrahman al Nuaimi says he is fortunate to have found a career in a subject which has been his hobby and passion since he was a boy.
From childhood Mr al Nuaimi, now 23, has been fascinated with his country's heritage and by the stories of the elders in his family. Now he is one of the few Emirati archaeologists in the country and is committed to taking the field forward and unearthing some of his country's hidden treasures dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. His friends used to tell him that archaeology was nothing more than a hobby and encouraged him to take up a more respectable field such as engineering, which many of them studied. Little did they know that Mr al Nuaimi would soon become one of the national leaders in the field.
"I'm so lucky," he says. "But I still remind them that they said that." His success is all the more remarkable because of its humble beginnings. The village where he grew up, Umm al Dhafa, remains a quiet, remote place with a small population. There are no malls, infrastructure is limited and making the 20-mile journey to the nearest city, Al Ain, is practically a necessity for day-to-day living.
"The atmosphere around me was always very traditional," he says. "People liked to walk in the desert and it was a great place for me as I liked to discover things." His interest in archaeology began in primary school when he came across a delicate pot used for keeping water cool in the desert heat. He smiles as he recalls the satisfaction of his first find. "It was two miles from our home, out in the desert," he says. "I saw the rim poking out from the sand and then I dug the rest of it up."
From a large family with nine siblings, Mr al Nuaimi was always fascinated by heirlooms such as their collection of khanjan, the knife belts worn by the Bedouin tribes. He loved to walk around the souks of Al Ain and was fascinated by their collections of pottery, swords and other local paraphernalia. Though his school was small, it was there that he learnt about the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. His passion grew, developing into an interest in ancient civilisations. He also familiarised himself with the famous Emirati sites in Sharjah and Umm al Nar, also known as Sal al Nakhl. Still, his thirst for knowledge was growing.
"At school the classes weren't satisfying me," he says. "I wanted more, so I'd look for any books I could find in Arabic. I wanted to collect as much information as possible. Whatever topics I found, I took." When he was eight years old, he went to Al Ain's National Museum for the first time. Little did he know it would end up as the place he would begin his career. Fascinated by the array of artefacts, especially a stone from the moon, the museum further fuelled his hunger to learn about past civilisations.
As he neared the end of senior school, he returned as he thought about his future career. "I didn't even know there was a subject called archaeology," he says laughing. "I spoke to the people at the museum and they told me they needed archaeologists and that there was a big gap for Emiratis and that no local people were interested, as they all wanted to make money and have 'prestigious' jobs." UAE University is the only institution in the Emirates currently offering history and archaeology courses, but just two of its modules are archaeology specific.
His teachers therefore advised Mr al Nuaimi to apply for studies abroad. He finally got a place at Bradford University in Yorkshire, England. As the only foreign student in the class, he soon spread the word about the UAE and his culture. "I always take brochures with me to show people where I'm from," he says with a smile. "I love my country and this is where I want to be. By the end of the course they all knew about the UAE."
His first time living away from home and in a foreign country, he says, was a wonderful adventure. He travelled to Georgia for an Anglo-Georgian dig from the time of Alexander the Great, which was headed by a professor from Cambridge University. With no running water or electricity for one month, he experienced a small taste of how his forefathers once lived. "This was one of my happiest times," he says.
He now hopes that he and his three young colleagues, who have launched the archaeology team at the Al Ain museum over the past five years, will inspire others to take an interest in archaeology, a profession which perhaps is still associated with the older generation. He feels he has already worked wonders among his friends. "We used to go to malls in Dubai at the weekends. Now we go on digs," he laughs. "They really like it."
When he cannot answer their questions, he simply brings them to the museum to speak to the people he still modestly calls "the experts". He hopes that in the long term the drive to spread understanding of local history and ancient sites will help preserve local culture. "We can't say we don't want development and the new life, but the combination between both is bringing a special feeling," he says. "In the future there will be more focus on archaeology and more research on local history."
He hopes to start a master's degree programme soon on pre-Islamic or Hellenistic history in the UAE. It has not yet been studied in much detail, he says. To be part of such a fledgling team, is, as he says, "evidence that we as archaeologists exist now". @Email:email@example.com