x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Reem El Mutwalli: Living and breathing history

Reem El Mutwalli is one of the few people to have had the keys to Qasr Al Hosn.

Reem Tariq El Mutwalli with Sheikh Zayed at an exhibition at the Cultural Foundation in the 1990s.
Reem Tariq El Mutwalli with Sheikh Zayed at an exhibition at the Cultural Foundation in the 1990s.

Not many people can say they held the keys to Qasr Al Hosn, but Reem Tariq El Mutwalli had them for two decades, beginning in 1984 when she began work at the Cultural Foundation, under the the chairmanship of Ahmed Al Suwaidi, followed by his son Mohammed Ahmed Al Suwaidi.

After conducting a full survey on all of Abu Dhabi's forts as part of her master's degree in Islamic art, architecture and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, El Mutwalli published the first architectural survey on the fort, Qasr Al Hosn, in 1995.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed were great supporters of the book, she says, as was Ahmed Al Suwaidi. "He would encourage everyone around him to preserve everything of historical importance. The writer, he would motivate to write and produce books. He also encouraged the architects to renovate only in the right way. The artists he would support to create everything of creativity. He was very modest in his great achievements. He wanted the fort to be sustainable and in turn he wanted this for the whole country."

Also during that time, she designed, directed and supervised the first five exhibition halls at the Cultural Foundation.

El Mutwalli, who describes herself as "Iraqi in birth, western in education and upbringing, Arab in spirit and Emirati in my passion", came to the UAE at the age of 5 when her father was appointed economic consultant to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was Crown Prince at the time.

"When Sheikh Zayed ruled Abu Dhabi, Al Hosn's importance transferred from the home of the ruling family to a governing institution. Ahmed Al Suwaidi, Ahmed Al Habroush, Humoodah Bin Ali and Abdullah Al Masood were all some of Sheikh Zayed's first men who worked in Al Hosn and with him since the beginnings of his rule.

"In the 70s, when things were expanding and the offices of the ministries were moved to different buildings, Al Hosn became a historical tradition. Diwan Sheikh Khalifa [bin Zayed, the current President] was in Al Hosn and when they first distributed land to the people it was in Al Hosn."

Another person who knows Qasr Al Hosn well is Abdulrahman Makhlouf. Sheikh Zayed made him director of Abu Dhabi Planning Department, which included Qasr Al Hosn, from 1968 to 1976. "I was working on Sheikh Zayed's vision on renovating Al Hosn. He wanted it renovated but wanted to preserve all its old characteristics and all it stood for and to make it a liveable building. He wanted us to use the materials it was mainly built with long ago. To do this, the architect must understand each corner of the fort and its relevance in history. This can only be done by delving into its history and having full appreciation of its past."

To Mohammed Abdullah Al Mansouri, an Emirati historian and architect, Qasr Al Hosn was never just a building. "When I enter Al Hosn, I know every brick, every wall tells a story. I get goosebumps when I think of the history and people who lived in this building. Al Hosn shouldn't only be preserved as a building, but the memories of the people who once lived there need to be kept alive."