x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Genealogy and the UAE: Stories that reveal who we are

Meet Saeed Al Suwaidi who is widely recognised as the UAE's leading genealogist, an important role in a country where family ties are fundamental to society.

Saeed al Suwaidi, the youngest genealogist in UAE, at his house in Nadd al Hamar. Jaime Puebla / The National
Saeed al Suwaidi, the youngest genealogist in UAE, at his house in Nadd al Hamar. Jaime Puebla / The National

It all began with a court case five years ago.

Saeed Al Suwaidi was giving evidence as a witness in an inheritance case involving an old woman who had recently passed away.

The judge, he recalls, listened as Mr Al Suwaidi quietly listed the old woman's family on her mother's side, and "then asked me 'enta 'nassabah?' (are you a genealogist?) I was surprised. It was an honour and I felt I wasn't at that level."

Five years later, Mr Al Suwaidi is widely recognised as the country's leading genealogist, an important role in a country where family ties are fundamental to society.

Looking back to his debut in court, he explains that the judge followed up with a question of his own - which of the Prophet Mohammed's companions was an expert in the field?

Mr Al Suwaidi confessed that he had no idea, and with the judge refusing to tell him, had to research the topic later.

Discovering that it was Abu Bakr Al Siddique, the Prophet's father-in-law and most senior of the companions - and that he had memorised the deeds and names of 10 generations - the young Emirati says he realised just what an honour it was to be a genealogist, a nassabah.

Mr Al Suwaidi has been studying family lines for about 10 years and says his knowledge "is still in the beginning".

What makes his work unusual is that he is an expert not just in tracing back families through the father's side, but one of the few genealogists here to focus equally on the mother's and the women's side.

One of the goals of his work, he says, is to strengthen the understanding of the relationships between tribes and make people more aware of how they are linked to each other.

In days of old, Mr Al Suwaidi points out, everyone was known by the name of their tribe. "We did not have ID cards or passports for identification. It was the tribe's name and family name that indicated who you were, how you introduced yourself and were known."

As an illustration he suggests: "Check out the old maps of the area. You will find it marked with the tribes' names, not the names of cities. For example, the Bani Yas would be written in a large font, marking the whole area in Liwa where they lived. The same would be true for Al Manaseer, Al Quwasem and all the tribes.

And among those tribes, it was the women who played an important role, as both the pillar of the family and through the way some tribes formed alliances.

An example he gives is the mother of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan was the granddaughter of Zayed the First, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, and married Sheikh Mohammed's father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, in 1939.

"Sheikh Mohammed recently changed the name of Al Wasl Hospital to Latifa Hospital, in her name," says Mr Al Suwaidi

In some families, the name by which it is popularly known - the labooga or nickname - comes from the female side, usually because one of the women was a strong personality, or perhaps where a father had died and the men of the family were raised by their mother. "For example, there is goom [people] bin Ftaim, goom bin Eshbah, goom bin Mahra, and so on."

Other families and tribes may be related to each other, but might be unaware because their last names differ. In those cases, Mr Al Suwaidi says "you would definitely know the relationship is from the mother - a cousin from the mother's side or weld el khal as we call it. And weld el a'am is the cousin from the father's side."

Documenting all this is an "extremely exhausting process", Mr Al Suwaidi says. "I overlap oral history and the stories from elders with the written documents.

"Take one woman from a certain family, let's say Moza, who has three daughters. Every girl by now would be a branch of the family, along with her children. "So I will interview all the three daughters of Moza and write their part of the story.

"I have a file for each family, and now have documented more than 100 families, both the father's and mother's side."

While oral histories and paper records are the basis of his research, Mr Al Suwaidi also uses the latest scientific tools, such as DNA testing.

"Not all the tribes have the same DNA code because Arabs are descended from two main branches, Qahtan and Adnan," he says.

The DNA test involves a swab from the inside of the cheek and takes about two months before the results are known.

"Most of the UAE tribes have very similar codes," says Mr Al Suwaidi, adding: "We check to make sure that there is no mistake in the different branches of the tribe before recording it."

The DNA testing he uses can only show the father's side of the family tree, he adds. Still, science cannot replace his most vital tool - trust. Finding family elders who are willing to talk about their stories of past generations is not easy, he says.

"I always approach elders or families through someone who knows us both, and who introduces me to them." In that way, he says, they feel comfortable sitting down with him "and trust is formed".

One of his most cherished sources was an old lady from Dubai. Fatima bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Suwaidi was more generally known as Fatima bint Ghadhy.

She was born about 1905 and only died three years ago, so had more than a century's understanding of the lives and links of the families of the region. Mr Al Suwaidi calls her his role model "and a treasure of knowledge".

Fatima was "a true believer, a nassabah" he says, who had memorised the Quran by heart. He hopes to name his first daughter after her.

Which brings him to the subject of marriage and tribal family trees. Knowing the history of a family is still essential in the Emirati community, where it is taken very seriously, says Mr Al Suwaidi. "A lot of people call me to ask about the family tree and the origins of a man who has proposed to their daughter. Who his ancestors are? Their grandmothers? What's their reputation? How seriously do they practise religion, and their morals? They will never allow a marriage to a someone who does not connect with their origins."

While Emirati society is now more open than it was in the past, and mixed marriages are more common, Mr Al Suwaidi says: "Even if you see a girl, not so reserved as we might call it, who might walk out without even a shayla and abaya, still when it comes to marriage you would find that she went back to the old standards, and it would be difficult for her to let go of it. Our society is built on this, and that is still a fact."

As he points out, when you join a gathering of elders, the first thing they would ask is: "Ent men minnah?" To whom you are related?

His work, says Mr Al Suwaidi, feels more like a duty and he believes a growing number of young people are interested in the subject. His Twitter account in Arabic, @almawrooth, has several thousand followers, who send in questions and offer feedback.

His first book, which covers his research going back to the 19th century, is also shortly to be published.

As for the current generation, he advises them to write down the memories of their grandparents and uncles, either on paper or with recording devices, capturing their sayings, stories and poetry. "Otherwise, once they pass away, you will feel like an outcast. You need to know who your family is, not to brag but to know."

Mr Al Suwaidi likes to quote from the Quran, Surah 49 Verse 13: Al Hujarat (The Apartments): "O mankind! Lo! We have created you from male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knowing, Aware."