x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Insight into Emirati culture few expatriates can access

Jane Bristol-Rhys, a professor of anthropology and teacher of Emirati studies at Zayed University, has witnessed a side of life that passes by most expatriates - first-hand experience of Emirati society. She recorded her conversations and observations in a book, Emirati Women: Generations of Change.

ABU DHABI // Jane Bristol-Rhys has witnessed a side of life that passes by most expatriates - first-hand experience of Emirati society.

As a professor of anthropology and teacher of Emirati studies at Zayed University for the past decade, she has taught and made friends with many Emirati women. This achievement has been made easier by the fact that she speaks fluent Arabic.

She recorded her conversations and observations in a book, Emirati Women: Generations of Change, which she will discuss this afternoon alongside the Emirati novelist Maha Gargash at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Bristol-Rhys, a 55-year-old American, said her experience in the UAE was unusual for an expatriate.

"So many people come to work in the Emirates but don't deal or interact with Emiratis at all. The two communities socialise separately for a variety of reasons. So to come here and be put in front of a class of Emiratis is what I consider to be a privileged position."

Gargash, the only Emirati writer to be published internationally in English, will be talking about her novel, Sandfish, which was published by HarperCollins in 2009.

The book tells the story of Noora, a rebellious 17-year-old girl, who is the third wife to a much older man during the 1950s.

Although her novel is fiction, it also came about through extensive research. Gargash began working for Dubai TV in 1985, interviewing Emirati families for television documentaries. The result, she said, was a wealth of knowledge in the form of notes and unused material that she collated into her novel.

"I love to tell stories and I had always been interested in writing something about the past, as there was very little written about it.

"People might be able to find out about the pearl trade, for example, but they wouldn't be able to know about the day-to-day society or the lifestyle people lived."

Using family and friends to confirm every detail, she produced a novel that reflected the Emirates, pre-unification and pre-oil. "It's very important for the youth here to know their history. It's such a fast age now, people don't take the time to sit with the elders these days. I put my work into a novel form to attract more of the youth," Gargash said.

Bristol-Rhys said she, too, wanted the younger generation to benefit by helping them put the rapid changes in their country into perspective.

"In no other century has change occurred so rapidly in the world as it did in the 20th century, but in this country that change has happened over the course of one lifetime.

Published by Hurst & Co in the UK and the Columbia University Press in the US, Emirati Women: Generations of Change is not yet available at UAE bookstores. It can be bought online and copies will be available at the festival. The women will speak at the InterContinental hotel in Dubai Festival City at 3pm today.

Read Bushra al Hashemi's review of Emirati Women: Generations of Change by Jane Bristol-Rhys in tomorrow's Review section.

aseaman@thenational.ae