x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Man brings UAE history to life

Abdullah AbdulRahman spent five years collecting the words, voices and priceless historical memories of an older generation of Emiratis for a weekly newspaper feature. The collection, an invaluable archive of a unique way of life, has now been published as a book.

Author and journalist, Abdullah AbdulRahman, speaks about his time spent collecting stories from the previous generation of Emiratis in the 1980s. Sammy Dallal / The National
Author and journalist, Abdullah AbdulRahman, speaks about his time spent collecting stories from the previous generation of Emiratis in the 1980s. Sammy Dallal / The National

It was the early 1920s, and the group of 14 young men battling heavy seas on their way to Qatar in a twin-masted boom dhow were thinking more about survival than making history.

In the end, they achieved both.

The young men were the first batch of Emirati students sent abroad to study, in this instance with the renowned Qatari religious authority, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulaziz bin Manee.

Among them was Humaid bin Ahmed bin Falaw, 15, who left his bride of just a few months behind in Ajman to seek knowledge and become a scholar.

"It was a difficult decision my father made. He needed my help in pearl diving, but he understood the importance of knowledge and education and so sent me off with his blessing," Humaid recalled later.

"Two of the students died in Qatar. One was from Al Heira in Sharjah, and the other from Al Moaaryed in Ras Al Khaimah. They got the smallpox, and struggled painfully with it until their death.

"We lived in small rooms at the mosque and lived on food donated by the merchants of Qatar. The Qataris appreciated students and helped us in every way."

These recollections of the man who became Sheikh Humaid were written down and recorded by a younger Emirati journalist, Abdullah AbdulRahman, who from 1984 to 1989 made it his mission to collect the voices of an older generation of Emiratis as a means of archiving and preserving history.

Born in Ras Al Khaimah in 1957, AbdulRahman created a weekly series for AlIttihad newspaper titled Fenjan Qahwa, or Cup of Coffee, which featured voices such as that of Sheikh Humaid, along with their photos - mostly as they drank coffee in their majlis - and their most cherished documents and items that helped to tell their life stories.

In the case of Sheikh Humaid, he had become a renowned judge, teacher, imam and preacher, who for more than 60 years taught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Emiratis and expatriates who crossed his path.

"I would end up teaching and discussing religion on pearl diving boats whenever I could accompany my father on his hunt for the elusive treasure," said Sheikh Humaid. "Knowledge can be sought anywhere and at any time. You just need to have an open heart and mind to listen and understand. Never stop seeking knowledge, it is part of our religion and our well-being."

Now, in three hefty volumes, the series has been reprinted in book form by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and the National Library, along with the sound recordings of the interviews that were kept safe by AbdulRahman for more than two decades.

"The idea of a coffee cup as the title for the series was chosen for its symbolic representation of hospitality in our Arab culture," says AbdulRahman, who always made a point of drinking Arabic coffee with all the people he met and interviewed.

"During the Second World War, the Bedouins of the emirates would serve a date and an empty coffee cup to any guest that happened to cross their path in the desert. There was no coffee, a shortage of it across the region, as well as a shortage of food in general. But that didn't stop the bedu from including the coffee cup in their hosting tradition."

Fascinated by the tales of struggles before the discovery of oil, and the birth of a country in the 1970s, AbdulRahman started going to majlises held by the older residents of his neighbourhood in Ras Al Khaimah and then expanded it to majlises across the UAE.

"I was always on the road. I would spot an old man or an old woman, and I would try to talk to them. Each person I met had some special story to tell, and I felt it was my duty to write it and pass it on to readers and the public," he says.

"By not honouring the older generations and their contributions, we dishonour ourselves. They are the link between the past, the present and the future."

Some of his subjects include the founders of schools and institutions, poets and sailors; the different forms of "taxes" that once existed between the merchants and traders, salaries and budget sheets; the different forms of medicine and schools, the first roads built and navigational secrets in the sea. But no matter the topic, his articles as reprinted in the books are heavy with information and historical antidotes.

The Mutawa of Abu Dhabi, Al Haj Darwesh bin Karam bin Abdullah Al Qubaisi (1919-1985), was a teacher, imam, muezzin and traditional doctor who also circumcised boys: he once performed 200 circumcisions in three hours in 1971, many on sons of sheikhs.

"I was so exhausted by the end. It was the first time I felt so tired and I passed out," he recalled. "I would give the child some money and some sweets, as I know how painful and scary the whole operation is for them. I didn't want them to hate me or fear me."

In the early forms of circumcision, a barber's case was often needed, using a razor and herbal ointments for the operation.

An account by Umm Obaid, from Khorfakkan, of her first Haj pilgrimage to Mecca in the early 1960s, illustrates the great difficulty and high rates of death that occurred on the journey itself, even before arriving in the holy city.

"Women never travelled alone. So I went with my husband and son, all of us on one passport. We rode on a truck all the way to Farda, the Shandagha port in Dubai, and then we went on a lanj [type of dhow] that took us all the way to Damam.

"It took four days to reach land and most of the passengers ended up seasick. When we arrived, the police in Damam checked our papers and our luggage and demanded we get vaccinated, which I refused. They then separated the women from the men, and we stayed in tents before we headed in big truck-like cars to Mecca. A difficult and long journey, but worth it in the end."

AbdulRahman has captured timeless treasures in his work, from how one of the original Emirati judges once ordered a neglectful husband who married a second wife to pull out all of his "golden teeth" and give them to the first wife, to black and white movies from the late 1940s made by the country's first filmmaker, known as Captain (his real name was Mohammed Taqi Abdul Al Kareem), to the tradition of collecting desert tree branches and burning them in a bonfire as a way of communicating with the clouds for more rain.

"I have no favourite stories. They are all my favourites. I learnt something new each time, and I hope this generation and the next continue to learn through their ancestors and the amazing ways they always found solutions to difficult situations," he says.

"They were makers and producers. Not consumers. We need to regain some of that enterprising and creative spirit."