x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018


The preservation of age-old games is part of the balancing act preparing children for the hi-tech world.

Peals of childish laughter echo across the Sweihan racetrack from the fringes of the action at the Emirates Heritage Club's biannual cultural festival. A group of young Emirati girls, all dressed in their colourful festive best, are playing a simple game called shbair shbair. It doesn't look like much; two girls sit opposite each other in the sand, their knees drawn up and their feet touching. Their friends take turns jumping over the gap between them and, when each has had a go, the girls use their hands to increase the height of the barrier by a shbair - the Arabic term for the length between an outstretched forefinger and thumb. The height keeps going up and the game continues until only one girl can make the jump.

Elsewhere at the festival, camels are being raced the traditional way, for prizes of golden swords, and young men compete in displays of daring horsemanship. Older men, in pristine dishdashas, line up to sing ancestral songs, while young women sway their long black hair back and forth, as part of an ancient Bedu dance called naish. It would be easy to dismiss the girls' game as just something to keep them entertained while the serious business of heritage preservation is under way, but that would be to underestimate the importance of recruiting young people in the battle to keep Bedu ways alive.

Two women wearing the hijab keep a benevolent eye on the progress of the game. "When we were young, we used to play these games," says Maitha al Za'abi. "Our mothers, they played it," adds Eiman Anani. Variations of shbair shbair might be played in playgrounds from Beijing to Seattle, but this particular version is Emirati and, as with many other aspects of Bedu culture, is threatened by outside influences. Ms al Za'abi and Ms Anani are volunteers with the women's branch of the Emirates Heritage Club and, if they get their way, generations of Emirati girls will continue to be familiar with a game their great-grandmothers would recognise, rather than knowing only the latest PlayStation game.

The preservation of children's games is part of the balancing act facing a nation whose people need to acquire the broad range of business, cultural and technical skills required to thrive in the global community, and retain the memory of the simple and harsh life which played such a key role in shaping the national character. While the older generation remember how things were before oil brought affluence and plenty, the youngest Emiratis have known only a life of security and, are strangers to the tough conditions endured by their forebears.

Fifty years ago, the western region of Abu Dhabi lacked even the most basic hospital facilities and, with infant mortality rates of 50 per cent and 35 per cent of mothers dying in childbirth, life for the youngest was lived in the balance. The UN says that the UAE's infant mortality rate today - defined as the proportion of children who die before their first birthday - is at 0.82 per cent and even in failed or failing states such as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Liberia, Zimbabwe and Somalia it is under 16 per cent.

The balancing act between improving living conditions without losing sight of national origins was recognised by Sheikh Zayed long before he became the founding father of the UAE. In 1946, 25 years before unification and when Sheikh Zayed was still in his late 20s, he was put in charge of Al Ain and Al Gharbia. During a visit with his brother to Britain and France seven years later, he was struck by the disparity between the medical facilities available to his people compared with those in fully developed nations and he became determined to end his country's deprivation.

"There were a lot of dreams," he later recalled. "I was dreaming about our land catching up with the modern world. But I was not able to do anything because I didn't have the wherewithal in my hands to achieve these dreams. "I was sure, however, that one day they would become true." It was oil, of course, that provided the wherewithal that Sheikh Zayed sought - and it was the youngest who were among the first to benefit from the realisation of his dreams. By late 1960, he had recruited Pat and Marian Kennedy, American doctors with Middle East experience, to establish the first proper maternity hospital in Al Ain.

On the coast at Sharjah, the first school had been built in 1952. Locals such as Hasan al Naboodah, now the head of the oral history department at the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History, was among the first generation of Emiratis for whom education was compulsory. Before that, children would attend what he called traditional schools, learning Quranic verses and basic mathematics and writing. Most of their education came from their parents.

"Girls would work with their mothers and learn the jobs that used to be done," he says. "Boys as young as six would go to work with their father. Life was very difficult, especially for the people who used to go pearl diving. There were so many dangers they faced - skin diseases, sharks. If a father takes his son, diving is quite dangerous for young people." Life today, he concedes, has its own dangers. "Now so many young people are dying in car accidents. Life is getting easier but still there are too many accidents."

Today's children play with PlayStations and Xboxes,but Dr Naboodah recalls making his own toys, including simple cars crafted from discarded oil cans. The sea also played a pivotal part in his life as a child. "I spent most of my time until I was 18 close to the sea," he says. "I knew all the fishes of the Gulf by name and the time we used to catch them and the taste of each of them." This, he says, he would like to teach his son, but "unfortunately it's extremely difficult. He prefers hamburgers. I keep telling him, 'Fish is much better for you'."

Circumstances, he acknowledges, "are different and you can't force them to have the life you used to live. Whatever life you used to have, they have to live their time. You can't take them to the past." After all, he says, "not everything was good. There were things you don't want to even remember. People used to struggle just to find water to drink. It was very, very rare". But while life was hard and simple, "the social life was very, very strong and ties between families were very, very strong.

"People were very honest at that time, not greedy. They used to help each other. Those are the values that are very important to pass on from the old traditions." Sheikh Zayed foresaw the challenges that affluence would bring and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Emirates Heritage Club in 1993. "The country's young people must inquire about our history," he once said, "and go back to study it again and again, whether it be our recent history, or that of the far distant past, until they understand what has taken place in this country, and how past generations were able to cope with life here.

"They should do this because he who does not know his past will certainly not understand the present." And a people who do not understand their past, as Sheikh Zayed famously observed, have no future. A perfect example of the balancing act being carried out in many Emirati homes today can be found in the family of Abdullah al Mahairbi, one of the organisers of the Sweihan festival in January. His grandfather lived a traditional life in the oasis town of Liwa but his father came to Abu Dhabi for the easier and more prosperous life afforded by work in the burgeoning oil industry. Mr Mahairbi grew up in the city but retained a connection with the desert and, in turn, is attempting to pass that on to his own children.

However, at the age of 10, his eldest son has become accustomed to video games and city comforts and, given a choice, would prefer an evening spent among the lights of urban Abu Dhabi to a night under the stars in the desert. "With my son, I can't live here," says Mr Mahairbi. "He cannot take a shower. "His eight-year-old brother likes to study the camel and come out here with his grandfather to take care of the camels. He loves the desert and loves the camel and loves going outside and camping in the desert."

This, he says "is the history for this country and if we can't transfer it to my son, it will be hard. This is what we're supposed to do, to give my son information about the desert, about camels and about everything in this country. I have to tell to my son and to my daughter. "It's hard because of technology today. He wants to stay in front of his computer, playing games or on the internet." His own father, he says, "told me a lot of stories about how they lived, how it was hard for them living in the desert. Sometimes they would travel without water from place to place. If they lose their way, they cannot find water for drinking. Some people are dying because of that. There is no sign to see, if they can't memorise their way."

Hospitality, he says, was a matter of life and death: "They lived in hard times but they helped each other. If I have food, I have to help you because next time you're going to help me. It's important to carry that on - I help you, you help me." It is, he says, regrettable that even people who have lived in a neighbourhood "for five years or 10 years, they don't know who's next to them, who is their neighbour. If you live in a neighbourhood and you don't know who's your neighbour, how can you trust them with your children or your house?"

These are the concerns that lead Emiratis such as Ms al Za'abi and Ms Anani to volunteer their time, to ensure that the young girls playing on the ground at Sweihan remember and respect the significance of the sand between their toes. "It's very important," says Ms al Za'abi. "If we don't protect our heritage and tradition, who will preserve it and keep it for other generations?" jhenzell@thenational.ae