x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Desi girl: Respect for our heritage written in the stones

What lies on the other, less explored side of Jebel Hafeet?

For UAE residents, Jebel Hafeet means one thing: a scenic drive up a winding road, culminating in a bird’s-eye view of Al Ain from the tarmac plateau atop the majestic mount.

In my dozen or so years in the UAE, I have taken this road trip far too many times. That’s why when someone mentioned an Al Ain trip last week, I groaned in protest. It would take wild horses to drag me up there again. I was still protesting when a friend of mine showed me pictures of what looked like igloos made out of rock. This is what lies on the other, less explored side of Jebel Hafeet, I was told – and I was sold.

After a long and bumpy ride, I was standing at the foot of the mountain, with these strange desert igloos scattered around me. These are the Hafeet graves (sometimes called the Mezyad graves) from the Hafeet Period, dating from 3200 to 2700BC. Most of the ones on the northern side have been lost to modern development, but those on the eastern side are now fiercely monitored and protected, especially since their June 2011 listing as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Access to the site is difficult and may not have been possible without the mad off-roading skills of Imthi-shan Giado (www.motoringmiddleeast.com).

That afternoon, I sat atop a rock next to the graves, surveying the plains. A strange feeling of déjà vu washed over me as I realised that it was the same time one week ago that I was sitting on a very similar rock, contemplating an equally ancient civilisation some 5,000 kilometres away, in Pakistan.

We were on our way from Multan to Lahore when we decided to stop in Harappa. We wanted to see what 2600BC looked like. What we saw was too sad for words: wild shrubbery has swallowed the site and concrete covered almost every square inch of what were supposedly the remains of an ancient civilisation.

Our tour guide told us the site had been heavily damaged and most of the original material carted off during the Raj to build a railway. Whatever remains today is at the mercy of the elements and the locals. It is not unheard of for people to simply walk away with treasures unearthed from the practically unguarded site.

“This is why Unesco won’t accept us as a World Heritage site,” he said, scowling at some young men trying to jump a fence cordoning off an area. They leered at him and jumped over anyway.

Harappa has been on the Unesco’s tentative list of World Heritage sites since 2004, but has yet to make the cut. It makes me sad. Harappa is one of the greatest cities of the now-extinct Indus Valley Civilisation, which dates back to 6000BC. Clay tablets carbon-dated back to 3300-3200BC have been excavated at Harappa, with markings that are thought to be the earliest preserved specimens of writing in the world, according to Dr Richard Meadow of Harvard University, the director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project.

According to Unesco, “to be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria”. A cursory glance at the criteria reveal Harappa to fit at least four. Come on, Pakistan: surely the people who possibly invented writing deserve this? Is a letter to Unesco in order? I think so.

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi girl living in Dubai

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