Enthusiasts of the written and spoken word unite in Al Ain to share and protect the cherished lore that helps define Arab culture, writes Rym Ghazal.
Al Ain book show features cultural readings
"The story begins with a trip to Oman, to Al Habta souq, where a chance meeting of two pairs of eyes in the middle of a bustling market - one set from behind a burqa and the other belonging to a sheikh - was the beginning of a beautiful love story … "
Mariam Al Mazrouie takes a deep breath before continuing to tell this story to a captivated audience at the recent Al Ain Reads Book Show.
It is a tale she heard her grandfather retell many times before his death three years ago and it is the story of "Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa and his Bedouin wife".
Known as Zayed The First, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa was the ruler of Abu Dhabi for 54 years between 1855 and 1909, and when this great leader met the Bedouin woman, he sent members of his family to meet her relations - said to be of Al Wahaibi tribe - and proposed to her.
"It was customary for the bride to have some of her family accompany her to her new husband's house. So her brothers came with her to Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain. After they had left, the bride felt alone and was missing her home. So after a week, she composed a poem, which she recited to Sheikh Zayed," said Al Mazrouie.
The new bride praised her husband, his generosity and kindness in a beautifully composed poem, but in it she expressed her love for her family and how she felt like a "bird with a broken wing" after her family left, and that the fort was like a "white bone waving in the desert".
"She meant the fort was the most visible object in the desert, but lifeless like a bone," said Al Mazrouie.
"It must have been very difficult to hear those lines from his new bride, but in his wisdom and kindness, he let her go back to her family as a princess. Carrying gold and gifts for her family and tribe, she wasn't returning like a divorced woman. She was brought to Al Ain as a sheikha, and returned to her family, as a sheikha," she said, who wasn't able to give a specific date for this tale.
Renowned for the just way in which he ruled and for his ability to unite tribes, the story of Sheikh Zayed The First passed down through the generations and gives a rare insight into the leader who was called "The Great", says Al Mazrouie
"It also shows how powerful women were, particularly the Bedouin women. If they didn't want something, they didn't accept it. They spoke out," she said.
Al Mazrouie, whose work has not been published, was one of many storytellers joining Emirati authors in Al Ain recently for a celebration of the Arabic written and spoken word.
She started collecting stories from past generations after the death of her grandfather, having suffered a "great loss" by not documenting what he used to say.
"The simplest of things, like he wouldn't say 'Jumeirah'. He would say 'Qumeirah'. I would correct him and he would correct me.
"It turns out that it was actually called Qumeirah because of the Qamar (Moon) that would shine brightly on the white sands of the area known today as Jumeirah," she said.
"Our culture was an oral culture for the longest time, and so it is important to preserve that part of our heritage."
Aisha Al Dhaheri was one of the authors reading at the book show. An Emirati researcher who works at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority's intangible heritage department, she published, Hekayat Shaabiya Min Al Ain (Traditional Folk Tales from Al Ain), in 2008.
"I collected stories from the elderly women of Al Ain," she said. "I wanted to preserve them for future generations."
One of her favourites is the folk tale of "the generous woman", the story of a nomadic tribe making stops along a desert route at the camps of other tribes.
"When they stopped at a rich tribe's tent camp, where there were bountiful goats and camels, the hosts were stingy and instead slaughtered a dog and presented it as food for the guests.
"But the wise man of the visiting tribe tapped his stick on the plate and called out to the dead meat to, 'go back to the form you were born with'. A dog appeared on top of the plate and ran off," said Al Dhaheri.
The guests leave in anger, cursing the host tribe. The tribe then wander into the desert and stumble upon a tent belonging to an old woman and her son. She had a single goat, named Chia, whose milk was used in tea.
The tribe asked the old woman for accommodation for the night, so she hospitably slaughtered her goat and served the meat.
Then, as they were leaving, they blessed the old woman and left her a collection of "newa", seeds of dates, and asked her to plant them around her tent.
The next year, when the same tribe visited the old woman, her tent was in an oasis of palm trees, with many goats and camels.
However, the people of the stingy tribe were wallowing in poverty, having lost all their livestock.
"This story captures an important tradition, that the host must always be hospitable and generous to the guest," said Al Dhaheri. "There are so many wonderful tales like that."
AsEnglish becomesdominant, spoken as well as written Arabic must be preserved.
"So many can't even write Arabic, let alone the different Arabic fonts and styles," says the Emirati calligrapher Mohamed Mandi, who wrote the names of children who came up to his desk at the fair with calligraphic strokes.
"Most don't know what it is I am drawing, so I explain it to them and then they are like, 'wow'. It is beautiful. That is what I want to hear and inspire, for those children to go back and demand to learn this kind of writing," he said.
With the introduction of computers, he feels that schools stopped teaching khat, which he says is a big loss.
"When you write on paper, it is always different. There is a special connection unlike any other. It should not be forgotten."
Rym Ghazal is a senior feature writer and columnist for The National.