x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Marvel of a fort that fills the generation gap

Much of that past has vanished, yet Qasr Al Hosn endures, providing a physical link to simpler times.

Recently I had a conversation with my 74-year-old father about his earliest memory of Qasr Al Hosn.

He recalled the time as a young boy when he accompanied his father to a feast held by Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan. "The Sheikh was a humble person," my father told me. "He would invite the entire community for feasting and converse with his people."

Abu Dhabi has changed tremendously in the past six decades. A country that was once only desert and palm trees has now become a 21st-century metropolis.

Much of that past has vanished, yet Qasr Al Hosn endures, providing a physical link to simpler times.

This week, as visitors flock to Qasr Al Hosn to celebrate its 250 years of history, my generation will acquaint themselves with a forgotten past and appreciate the richness of our culture and heritage. Among the lessons I hope my peers take away is an appreciation of the openness of my country's forefathers.

Many of us in attendance will marvel at the fort's towers, its palm and coral architecture, its juxtaposition against the steel and glass high-rises that cast shadows over the walls. But what we won't necessarily see is the history of tolerance that the fort has embodied since its birth.

Since the 18th century, writers, explorers and businessmen have travelled to Abu Dhabi, calling on the ruling sheikhs who made Qasr Al Hosn home.

Samuel Marinus Zwemer, an American missionary nicknamed The Apostle to Islam, was one of those explorers who visited Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan in Qasr Al Hosn in 1890s. Zwemer believed that an absence of the concept of trinity was the greatest deficiency of the Islamic monotheism, and one of his purposes of visiting people of Arabia was to convert the local population from Islam to Christianity.

His overtures clearly failed, but the Sheikh and the people did not rebuke him for his evangelism. Rather, they showed a level of politeness and hospitality that is the basic principle of Islam.

In Zwemer's 1901 writings he stated that he and his compatriots were assigned to a large room and they were served huge dishes piled with rice, dates and bread on a large mat. "Everywhere this hospitality was repeated," wrote Zwemer.

Even in the late 1800s my forefathers understood the value of discussing different religious beliefs and values with each other as a source of knowledge and clarification.

These traditions continue. It was not surprising when Italy considered the UAE as a "model of tolerance" in the Arab world and appreciated the government for the respect of human rights and tolerance toward all religions.

Reading the journals written by the expatriates who visited the palace at that time I'm struck by the hospitality, openness, tolerance and generosity they were treated to.

Today that legacy lives on outside the fort's wall, in the faces of the 200 nationalities that live across the Emirates. Stories of inclusivity will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.

aalhameli@thenational.ae