x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Decade of Change: The high cost of our highrises

Dr Hasan Naboodah, a history professor at UAE University, knows that urbanisation and globalisation are here to stay, but he longs for a simpler time.

Dr Hasan Naboodah, the former director of the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History in Al Ain, laments the loss of the traditional Emirati way of life, such as spending summers in the desert in an arish, a palm-leaf hut, below.
Dr Hasan Naboodah, the former director of the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History in Al Ain, laments the loss of the traditional Emirati way of life, such as spending summers in the desert in an arish, a palm-leaf hut, below.

AL AIN // Ten years ago, Dr Hasan Naboodah expected his sons to follow in his footsteps and support an Emirati football team. But today, Khaled, 12, and Mohammed, 17, sport the colours of the Spanish teams Real Madrid and Barcelona.

"This in itself is an indication of how much things have changed; we now live in a global village," said Dr Naboodah, 48. "We are living in an exceptional era in this part of the world. If you look at history over 2,000 years, nothing has ever changed this quickly." Dr Naboodah, a professor of Emirati history and archeology at UAE University in Al Ain, cites the internet and the explosion of the world telecommunications industry as a primary cause of this rapid development. It had, he said, allowed his children, and his students, to gain a global perspective.

But while such growth had brought knowledge, it had come at a price, he added. "Social customs and traditions are being lost to the new generation. Everyone used to be poor, communities lived together and were as close as families. They lived a simple life and had their own identity. "Now everyone lives in big houses, they don't know their neighbours and they spend their spare time on the computer," he said. "Do we really need such rapid growth? We are in danger of losing our culture, heritage and traditions."

Dr Naboodah grew up in Sharjah in the 1960s. He said the country was much more closely linked to its history back then. "Most of the population were Emirati and we grew up immersed in our traditions. Our grandparents taught us old proverbs and folk songs and we learned how to survive in the desert. The women learned how to make traditional bread and sweets. Nowadays everyone just buys bread from the supermarket."

In the 1970s, while still living in Sharjah, Dr Naboodah and his relatives would spend each summer staying in palm-leaf huts, known as arish, in the desert, as did most families. His days were spent swimming in a nearby creek, among tropical fish that he said were now only to be found in places such as the Maldives. After evening prayers, all the boys would soak their wizars (a cloth garment worn wrapped around the lower half of the body) in the well to use as a cool blanket to give some respite from the searing heat.

It was a way of life today's young people only read about in books, he said. Dr Naboodah spent the 1980s studying in the UK and when he returned in 1989, he moved to Al Ain. He said he chose to live in "the garden city" as it was the least affected by the rapid growth of the country. "Al Ain is the gift of Sheikh Zayed to the people of the Emirates. It is green, clean, well organised and, most importantly, there are no high-rise buildings here," he said. "I couldn't live anywhere else."

In 1999, Dr Naboodah was appointed the director of the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History in Al Ain. Opened under the patronage of the Emirates Heritage Club, the centre has published many books about Emirati heritage to help preserve traditions. Dr Naboodah, who stepped down as the director when the centre moved to Abu Dhabi two months ago, said he had used the publications as teaching resources.

"It was important to make the students want to remember," he said. "If someone lives a westernised life for too long it is very hard to bring them back. He will think we are talking about some ancient time when actually this is the core of his identity." He said school curricula should emphasise heritage more and reflect the culture of the UAE and Gulf Arabs. "We should act quickly to stop things changing beyond recognition."

The vast increase in the expatriate population over the past two decades had exacerbated the problem, he said. "Of course some changes are natural but today there are so many foreigners living here that it is difficult to find an Emirati in Dubai. Our population has been diluted." Rapid urbanisation of places such as Dubai has not helped, he added. "The infrastructure there is more than excellent and I'm sure in 200 years historians will be very impressed with what has been achieved in such a short time but it does not come without a price.

"It's like building a house, if you make it too big and too luxurious it costs a lot of money to maintain and you encounter unseen problems. "Now in Dubai the economy is struggling and the language is being lost. I think it would have been much better to take it step by step and make decisions slowly." Still, he noted that the Government had made a concerted effort over the past two or three years to minimise the negative impact of development.

He praised the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage for its work to preserve the country's oral history, develop its archaeological sites and promote Arab heritage. "They are trying to stop the negative aspects of the change. Hopefully, they will be successful." aseaman@thenational.ae Tomorrow: an editor's view