x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Heritage must be our shelter from the consumerist tide

How can this country honour the culture of the ancestors at a time when the UAE is in a race for acknowledgement on the new world map?

In spite of the importance of heritage in preserving the identity and character of an individual, the official attention from the Ministry of Culture and other cultural institutions, including private ones, to protect the country's heritage, has not proven satisfactory. Among the younger generations it has become too tempting to dismiss the need to dig deeply and learn about their past. New technologies, such as the internet, satellite channels, and all other communication mediums have played a huge role in this internal change.

The central question is this: how can this country honour the culture of the ancestors at a time when the UAE is in a race for acknowledgement on the new world map?

Here, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan had a clear vision regarding the role of heritage as an absolute necessity in the lives of people: "Anyone who has no past has no present and no future." He stressed the importance of the past as a foundation for the morals and values of the present. On another occasion Sheikh Zayed declared that "our constant thinking of the past and its lessons, and of the present and its hopes, and of the future and its aspirations, will all lead us to build a prosperous nation".

Heritage was a fortress for the identity of the nation's people against invading elements of change. Today, more than ever, the country's heritage should be considered one of the most important moral agents in strengthening cultural continuity.

The UAE has embraced economic and social openness in the last four decades, yet this openness has produced a new mix of residents and a new mix of challenges. Citizens have become a minority in their own country. The coming of more than four million people to seek work and employment opportunities in the country has meant that cosmopolitanism has become the focus. The assimilation of the local culture of the society into the larger population of incoming residents raises a significant question of how long the special characteristics of the local society can stand in the way of overwhelming change.

Here it is also important to remember the words of Sheikh Zayed: "Heritage represents the spirit, the wisdom and the various creativities of the people. Nations are measured by their heritage. A nation without heritage is a nation without a land to live on, or a shore to reach before getting lost in the ocean."

Underlining the UAE's deep and rich culture by focusing on heritage and introducing it to younger generations in schools, media programmes, libraries, and forums is the best way to educate students about the richness of the past and the history of their nation. This will also open a window for them to understand the myriad of experiences of their ancestors and consider their own experiences so that they can face the challenges of the present. In addition, it will strengthen the ties each individual has with his or her homeland.

A prevailing state of consumerism has hindered the strengthening of Emirati society for the last generation. The wave of consumerism has greatly affected the social, cultural and economic structure of this society. The rising tendency of individuals to change and improve their living conditions has come with a side effect: many are compelled to give up the social, moral and behavioural codes of their ancestors, and the most recent generation, who preceded the oil era.

These new standards of behaviour were influenced by communities who sought work in the UAE and by the new financial standing of these individuals, which helped consumerism to increase its role in the lives of people at the expense their own culture and creativity. Even some writers, authors, and intellectuals were affected by the new facets of life, distancing themselves, unintentionally, from their heritage. Necessity requires that individuals look back at their individual roots in order to minimise the impact of the wave of consumerism that has bombarded our society and challenged its cultural unity.

Studying the heritage of the UAE is also a tribute to the first generation of Emiratis who laid down the building blocks of the society and enriched it with their creative works. It is a moral commitment for the current generation and all cultural institutions to preserve and respect the legacy of the predecessors who represent the past.


Dr Salem Humaid is an Emirati writer