x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The Sherlock Holmes of the desert

Take our quiz: At the newly renovated Heritage Museum in Sharjah, a unique collection of artefacts, exhibits and information open a revealing window into the nation's culturally rich and diverse past.

A 20-strong team of researchers, mainly Emirati women, took two years to assemble the collection on display at the newly reopened Heritage Museum in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
A 20-strong team of researchers, mainly Emirati women, took two years to assemble the collection on display at the newly reopened Heritage Museum in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

The Sherlock Holmes of the desert is just one of the characters brought to life by the newly renovated Heritage Museum in Sharjah, a unique collection of artefacts, exhibits and information open a revealing window into the nation's culturally rich and diverse past. Rym Ghazal reports

There had been a robbery at Al Mahatta Airport in Sharjah. Police rounded up the usual suspects but lacked proof to pin the crime on one of them. Enter Al Jafeer ("the tracker") - Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Ghafli.

The men were taken to the majlis of the late Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qassimi II. Al Jafeer looked them over for a few minutes and then announced dramatically: "The thief is the one who pours us coffee."

Unnerved, the newly exposed criminal dropped the cups and the traditional Dalla coffee pot and confessed to the robbery. Al Ghafli's reward was a certificate of commendation and 200 rupees (about Dh87), the currency at the time, as a monthly salary.

It is a story that might have been forgotten except for the opening this week of Sharjah's newly renovated Heritage Museum. An entire hall has been dedicated to those skilled in the arts of living and surviving in the desert.

Al Ghafli was one of an elite group of trackers, mainly from Bedouin tribes, who were called in to track down criminals and most wanted fugitives. Like a real-life Sherlock Holmes, he was renowned for his superior intelligence and keen observation skills.

Just how and when the Sharjah airport thief was unmasked is lost in the mists of time, but we know that Al Ghafli was born in 1906 in Umm Al Qaiwain and died in 1967. Those seeking his services knew to look for him by the side of the late Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi.

It has taken almost two years to renovate the museum, based in a traditional house inside Sharjah's Heritage Area. It was formally reopened on Tuesday evening in the presence of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed bin Sultan Al Qassimi, the Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah.

The museum has six separate halls, each capturing aspects of Emirati life from birth to death and the rich traditions that surround it - a comprehensive time capsule. A seventh hall will feature contemporary heritage, through a series of temporary exhibitions devoted to modern life. A cinema will show old and new films about the UAE.

"Walking through the halls, you are told the story of the UAE and its people from the past to current days," says Mona Al Mukhashab, who together with the other Emirati curator, Maysoon Mohammed, worked diligently on telling the "right" story of their country through this museum.

"Everything was researched and triple checked to make sure that whoever visits this museum will come out with the right information and a better understanding of our heritage and what lies at its heart," explains Ms Al Mukhashab.

But before entering the halls, a visitor is greeted by the impressive structure housing the museum itself.

Set up inside the former traditional home of Saeed bin Mohammed Al Shamsi, it is called Bait Saeed Al Taweel, literally "the house of the tall Saeed", a prominent pearl merchant, or tawash, who was noted for his height.

It is noticeable that the building, constructed around 1795, has higher ceilings than other Emirati homes of the period.

Built by the Al Qassimi family, the beige and white house is made of coral, chandal wood, palm, traditional "jus" mortar and plaster. With a courtyard in the middle, like all traditional homes, it also had three square watchtowers for defence, a sign of the owner's status.

The staff of about 20 who worked on the project - most of them Emirati women - made great efforts not to disturb the fabric of the house itself. "We were careful with every nail and where we hammered it in," says Ms Mohammed.

The first hall is the "landscapes" hall, where every detail of the life of a mountain, desert, coastal and oasis tribe is displayed.

The small details of life in those times are revealing; how the pillows were stuffed with fibres from al ara (Aerva javanica) the flowering kapok-like seedhead of the Ara bush, and fertilised their soil with o'oma (dried sardines).

A lengthy list of imported and exported goods gives a rare insight into what people lived on. In the mountains, exports included dates, mangos and guavas, tobacco, honey and yegat, a powdered buttermilk.

From the desert came charcoal, wool, livestock and red thumb (Cynomorium coccineum), the parasitic flowering plant used in traditional herbal medicine. Along the coast traded goods included pearls, o'oma, perfumes, coffee and clothes. From the oases came dates, mangos, figs, bananas, watermelon and guava.

The second hall has lifestyle as its theme, and examines every generation of a family, from infants to elders. "Many of the habits and traditions in the Emirati lifestyle took their foundation from Islam," Ms Al Mukhashab says.

One section is dedicated to child rearing, a subject rarely examined in museums. Visitors are shown how mothers dealt with fractious infants, rubbing them with frankincense or mixing rock sugar in water to calm them down.

On the seventh day after a child was born, the display reveals, a celebratory meal called aqeeqa was held, with two animals slaughtered for a boy and one for a girl. Tahleeq was performed at the same time, with the baby's head shaved and the weight of the hair donated as silver, gold or coins to the poor. Another tradition, of rubbing a softened date on a newborn's gums, is still practised today.

As well as life, the museum examines death. A female mannequin wears a simple long green mourning dress with a black wegayah (headscarf) and faces a covered mirror. "Widows were forbidden from looking at the moon and seeing their reflection in the mirror," says Ms Al Mukhashab. "Death is a part of life, but is an area most museums don't include."

The museum also houses an impressive collection of jewellery, perfumes, textiles, spices, traditional medicines and even adult and children's games. Al Dama, a board game for adults similar to chess, involves two players with rows of pieces who must reach the opponent's empty row first. The winner is declared a "Sheikh".

"Emirati life was very rich, but most have forgotten this or never knew this part of our heritage," says Ms Mohammed.

The third hall is dedicated to social and personal celebrations, such as Eid and Haq Al Lailah, or "for this night", when children set out with bags to fill with homemade sweets and treats 15 days before the holy month of Ramadan.

In the livelihood hall, there are displays of tools and trades once common in the UAE, accompanied by a map showing the various trade routes.

A photograph shows a wall covered with thick vertical lines. Merchants would draw these with charcoal or tie knots in a rope to keep track of accounts. An uncrossed line meant the bill was unpaid.

It is the fifth hall that reveals the secrets of the trackers. It was an age when anything from the stars and the weather to a footprint in the desert were tools to explain events, plan for the future and even understand who was passing by.

"A footprint in the sand was all a jafeer needed to see to know almost the full story of the person who left that mark," says Ms Al Mukhashab.

A good tracker could distinguish the young from the old, men from women and the blind from the sighted. It is said he could even tell which tribe someone belonged to or guess a child's mother from a large group of women.

"A jafeer would know if the footprint belonged to a married or single woman," says Ms Al Mukhashab. "One theory is that married women walk more on their heels and the unmarried ones put more pressure on their toes."

Finally, the oral-traditions hall displays riddles, proverbs and jinn-related folk tales, along with life-sized recreations of some of the mythical creatures from bedtime stories, such as evil palm trees.

Colourful "riddle boxes" allow children to guess an answer and then lift a lid to see if they are correct. It is one way the museum hopes to stop children from becoming bored. They will also be able to listen to traditional Emirati stories in Arabic and English, at "story stations".

"What you see here is just 10 per cent of the research and knowledge gathered in preparation for this museum," said Manal Ataya, director general of the Sharjah Museums Department.

"Researchers, journalists, students, anyone can contact us for more in-depth information that we have in our archive as a result of the hard work that went into reviving the heritage museum," she said.

"Emiratis and non-Emiratis will learn a lot from a visit here. But the most important part is that this was a project carried out by Emiratis for Emiratis, and the preservation of their heritage."

The Sharjah Heritage Museum is open daily from 8am to 8pm, 4pm to 8pm on Fridays. Admission is Dh5 for adults and Dh10 for a family ticket. Children are free. For more information call 06 568 0006 or visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae

rghazal@thenational.ae

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