Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

A brand-new, textbook version of UAE history

As the co-author of a new educational book, I hope our work will bring the rich heritage of the nation to life for generations to come

New initiatives, such as the 10-day archaeology exploration course at Ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain, are dedicated to unearthing the hidden history of the UAE. Reem Mohammed / The National
New initiatives, such as the 10-day archaeology exploration course at Ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain, are dedicated to unearthing the hidden history of the UAE. Reem Mohammed / The National

A little over eight years ago, I wrote a column for this paper titled “When textbooks are this bad, students can’t learn”. It was, I like to think, a comprehensive demolition of a book prepared by the Ministry of Education for the teaching of UAE history to school pupils.

“The book,” I wrote, “reduced me to a state of near-apoplexy. It is out of date, full of spelling errors and poorly printed, so that the place names on some of the maps are unreadable. How on earth are students supposed to learn them? Perhaps worst of all, it has numerous errors.”

Some of those errors were elementary in nature – so much so that I am almost embarrassed to repeat them. Of particular note was the failure, in a book published in 2007-2008, to acknowledge the death a couple of years earlier of Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid and the succession of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid as Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. Three years later, in 2011, the book was still being used in schools, on Ministry of Education instructions.

Like many newspaper columnists, I wonder occasionally whether anyone takes any notice of what I write. On this particular occasion, however, partly out of my absolute fury, I made sure that at least a few relevant people saw the column, by dropping it into their email inboxes and following up later.

Some time later, I was asked to get involved in a project to prepare a new textbook on UAE history that could be taught in schools. It was, I was told, something in which Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, had a personal interest.

In due course, after taking soundings amongst leading specialists in the UAE’s archaeology and history, we recruited Professor Peter Magee, both an archaeologist with extensive experience of the UAE and a brilliant teacher, to take on the task of writing the bulk of the material.

The book, I’m delighted to say, is to serve as the basis of a new history curriculum, in both Arabic and English.

The eventual result was the launch earlier this month by Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, of the new book The Emirates – Our History, by Magee, myself and Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism. While working as chairman of the private schools group Aldar Academies, Mohammed had responded, back at the beginning, to my article and brought it to the attention of key decision-makers.

The book, I’m delighted to say, is to serve as the basis of a new history curriculum, in both Arabic and English. It will also be part of a broader campaign to promote knowledge of the UAE’s past, along with another new initiative, a five-part film documentary series entitled History of the Emirates and produced by Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation.

It remains my hope in 2019, as it has been for many years, that UAE history will eventually be taught, properly and effectively, to all of the country’s residents. This should be done through schools and through higher educational institutions, as well as through a variety of cultural and other outreach programmes, to reach the older generations who lacked the opportunity to learn that history as part of their own education. Above all, though, it is important that the generations of the present and future are not similarly deprived.

Teaching about the UAE’s past will be a more complex process now than it was one or two decades ago. Work by archaeologists and historians, both local and from abroad, has uncovered much new information over the years.

Excavations on key sites such as those from the Neolithic period on Abu Dhabi’s western island of Marawah, or the early Christian church on Sir Bani Yas have have yielded new insights into the distant past.

Historical studies of Khor Fakkan, undertaken at the initiative of Sharjah’s Ruler, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, have drawn attention to the port town’s prominence at the time of the devastating Portuguese attacks at the beginning of the 16th century. They have also shed light on its long-forgotten but extensive trade in horses with India and on the presence of a large and important Indian merchant community – a timely reminder in this Year of Tolerance of the UAE’s diverse populations of the past.

It now looks as though our school students will soon be learning some proper UAE history. The next challenge is to ensure that they can continue to do so at our colleges and universities.

A couple of years ago, Zayed University, for some reason, abruptly brought to an end the only special course of its kind in the country, its BA in Emirati Studies. Now, apparently, proposals for a revamped course are being put forward. I hope they’re rapidly approved. As Government displays an ever-growing commitment to the need to teach our history, there is a growing need for people to be educated, so that they can pass it on to others.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Updated: April 28, 2019 02:57 PM

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