Thanks to hundreds of recorded interviews with elderly Emiratis, future generations will have an invaluable insight into the lives, language and customs of their ancestors.
The voices are those of elderly Emiratis, whose lives and memories are the only direct connection to a rapidly disappearing past. Over the past decade they have been painstakingly recorded and preserved as part of a project to build a “memory bank” for future generations of Emiratis. To the invaluable nature of these oral histories is added a poignancy; most, if not all of those who contributed to the archive are now dead.
The Oral History Project at the Zayed Center for Heritage and History, where researchers are studying and classifying the material, is especially important because in the days before unification little was written down.
“Previous generations had limited means of communication,” says Hasan al Naboodah, the historian in charge of the project. “Much of their spare time was spent narrating tales and anecdotes. This was not merely a pastime but a significant way of passing down information to their children and instilling values and traditions.”
It is “really important to preserve these stories because this tradition, like many others, is being lost to modernisation. If nobody makes the effort to create an oral history, then in 50 years everything will be forgotten.”
This was the message delivered by organisers when the centre was opened in March 1999 by Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation, who was, they wrote, “particularly keen in making the younger generation familiar with their authentic cultural heritage so that it is never forgotten”.
Dr al Naboodah and his team set about their work immediately but methodically, dividing the project into three stages. First, they conducted a thorough search of archives for any existing recordings and, over the course of a year, found and copied 200 interviews with Emiratis that had been recorded as far back as the 1970s.
Next, a specialist from the centre attended a six-month training course in folklore and spent the next five years conducting a further 300 interviews with locals from Al Ain and Abu Dhabi with memories of life in the years before oil and unification.
The next job – transcribing, categorising and indexing all the interviews – was the most time-consuming and is still not finished.
“Some of the material that we have now has been transcribed and classified according to different topics,” Dr al Naboodah says. “However, much of it is still raw data that needs to be edited.”
Many of the recordings not only document touching personal recollections but also key moments in the development of the region. Sultan al Darmaki'smemories were focused on his childhood. He grew up in Al Ain before the unification of the seven emirates and as a child attended the Nahyaniyya School, which was near the current clock roundabout. He spoke of roads that were unpaved sand tracks and buildings made of only mud bricks and date-palm leaves. He recalled a life that was more intimate than today, with families eating and working together rather than being separated by jobs in other towns or abroad, as is now common.
He also remembered the building of the first petrol station, which belonged to British Petroleum, and electricity being supplied to Al Ain for the first time in 1968.
Saif al Riyami, a retired major general who served with the British-run Trucial Oman Scouts from 1958 and then joined the Abu Dhabi Defence Force when it was established in 1966, talked of economic life. Many people, he said, depended on collecting dried wood to sell, while others cultivated date palms, ploughing the land with oxen. During the summer, he recalled, people would sleep in the open air; it was, he noted, very different from life today.
“Our times were beautiful despite the simplicity of life and lack of money,” Mr al Riyami said. “People did not envy each other. Nowadays hatred is everywhere. I remember how simple life was, despite the harsh and difficult living conditions.”
Another recording documents the memories of Akeeda al Miheeri, a local healer, who recounted how he had inherited from his forefathers some of the methods he used, including cauterisation – a simple if painful procedure to stop heavy bleeding by applying a very hot piece of metal to a wound. Other treatments he had invented himself.
“For treatments of different ailments and diseases I invented medications myself,” he said. “By the grace of God every person I treated was cured. Some patients I massaged and they were cured. Some I cauterised and they were cured. I also have a good knowledge of cupping”, a technique in common use for bleeding patients to improve circulation and help with various ailments, including depression.
Mr al Miheeri also spoke about life at the souq and how trading essential wares such as rice, bread and dates was the backbone to the livelihood of most families.
“Life was simple,” he said. “The farmer took care of the date palms in summer while wheat was grown in winter. Some people depended on that. Others used to sell dried wood and charcoal.”
Other recorded memories describe the traditional marriage ceremonies which usually started on a Wednesday and ended on a Friday. In those days, only small dowries were paid. Saeed al Mazroo'i recalled that the bride was not asked her opinion about her bridegroom. After the marriage contract was drawn up between the man and her family, the bride would meet her husband and go to her new home, travelling on a donkey, camel or horse – or, if they were poor, on foot.
“The cost of marriages was minimal,” Mr al Mazroo'i said. “If a man sought marriage, then he sent women to look for a wife for him. He saw his wife only on the wedding night.”
Dr al Naboodah says that from these fragments of oral evidence, his team of Emirati researchers have been able to piece together a clear picture of the lives of their forebears, ranging from the broad details of social life to the minutiae of the day to day, such as the names of the fish they caught. The team has also gathered essential clues to the development of the Arabic language.
From extensive study of the interviews, the Zayed Center, which is a branch of the Emirates Heritage Club, has published a dictionary of words particular to the local dialect. The book, Emirates Dialogue and Origin, lists the original word, followed by the equivalent in classical Arabic and then a breakdown of how the dialect word came to exist.
“It is unlike any other dictionary,” Dr al Naboodah says. “For those interested in language it is fascinating.”
Over the past decade the Zayed Center has published hundreds of books and academic papers. Among them are Zayed: A Photographic Journey, commemorating the life and times of the nation's founder, and Archaeology of the United Arab Emirates, which was written after the first international conference on the nation's archaeology.
The centre also produces the monthly magazine Torath – “Ancient” – which is the only national magazine dedicated to culture and heritage. In addition, the researchers work closely with professors from Al Ain University, providing support with manuscripts and for studies in both Emirati and Islamic heritage.
The work on the Oral History Project could lead to the publication of many more reference books, Dr al Naboodah said. However, funding is not what it used to be.
“When we started we had very ambitious plans and many of them were realised,” he says. “But unfortunately the interest does not seem to be as much as it was when the project began. Now there is not enough money to publish anything other than the magazine and most of the staff only have resources to use the information for their own research projects and not for the index or categorisation process that is necessary to make the Oral History Project accessible to others.”
It was intended to upload some of the recordings to the website, but an audio link remains “Under construction”.
“We were very ambitious at the beginning,” Dr al Naboodah says. “We wanted to put it all online but we couldn't continue because we didn't have enough money. Now each one of the girls is just working on specific pieces for their own projects. The plans for the big project are finished now unless we get more funding.”
Jane Bristol Rhys, an anthropologist at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and an expert in Emirati heritage, says that such a process is essential if this valuable resource was to be preserved.
“It is a fantastic project and the amount of data Dr al Naboodah and his team have collected is vast,” she says. “However, at the moment it is impossible to use as there is no index. It needs cross-referencing from a social and a linguistic perspective.”
Despite the setbacks and restrictions, however, the project represents one of the most important archives in the country. Shamsa al Dhaheri, one of the researchers from the centre, sums it up: “We cannot find data like this again, it is our history that has now been replaced. That is why the centre is so good and so important. I hope that people continue to do work like this for many, many years.”