x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Twin strands of history intertwined in UAE fort

When we document any history of any place, there is always at least two sides to the story. One is the building and artefacts , the other is the memories.

Sometimes people leave a mark on history so profound that researchers rush to study them.

Those who live and die without leaving behind "a good reputation", or as we say in Arabic "el thekrah el tayba", are soon forgotten. But those who do leave such a legacy are etched in time, their ideas and accomplishments part of who we are.

In Abu Dhabi, many of those people whose ideas we have come to cherish once lived in Qasr Al Hosn, the centre of life and of a ruling system for centuries.

During a recent month I researched these histories to learn more about my own people, and the great leaders of our past.

Every hour of research was to live in a different era. The product of these efforts was compiled recently into The National's history project report, Tower of Strength: Qasr Al Hosn through the Ages.

From books to living history I studied the life of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, the eldest brother of Sheikh Zayed. Both of these leaders, in their own time, protected this land and people and took it to the next level.

When we document any history of any place, there is always at least two sides to the story. One is the building and artefacts that remain with us today, but I think the stories and the memories represent the real history.

What does a standing palm tree mean, for instance, if you don't know that a certain treaty or agreement was signed in its shadow? Or that a women who gave birth to a boy in its shade, a boy who would later become a historic leader? This is real history, with those details and voices.

To be able to write about an era, one needs to live with it and walk among it. What was important about this place 200 years ago?

Sometimes there are simple answers; perhaps a scribe kept a journal or a painter left images for us to study. Other times we are left to imagine, and this is our challenge, as children of this land and as historians, to dig more, about not only the facts but the feelings.

I was among those permitted to visit the fort in advance of the Qasr Al Hosn Festival and walk around the corridors, where I could imagine what life would be like more than 50 years ago - where young sheikhs played as children, daily life unfolded in the shadow of the historic majlis of Sheikh Shakhbut and the business of the emirate once unfolded.

Then last Friday, after half a century, we attended the magnificent female opening of the festival. Location: the outer premises of Al Hosn. Dress code: traditional. Attendance: the elder and younger generation sheikhas of the Al Nahyan family and friends.

There were startling contrasts. Visitors used to come to this same area by camels, a few on horses, and later with classic cars in the olden days.

Today, we were in the long Mercedes and Rolls-Royces with Abu Dhabi red plate numbers. But all of us wore our favourite traditional kanduras under our abayas and our pearls and gold.

Media had covered the men's parade, the museum and the activities. But the female world is private, one that boasts an unseen dimension far from the public eye in the Emirates.

The star, undoubtedly, was Sheikha Mariam bint Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. She was the driving force behind that festival.

Like a sheikha welcoming guests in her majlis, she welcomed us in.

And, like a mother taking care of every detail, she was standing until the very end, after we had all entered our cars, praising every moment of that golden connection between the past and the present.

balhashemi@thenational.ae