x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Remind me of an old Emirati saying

Proverbs are like witty mirrors of culture that show the attributes a community holds dear. But such pearls of wisdom come under great risk of being lost as the language that conveys them changes.

Proverbs caricaturised in Turath, the magazine of the Emirates Heritage Club, to raise interest in the roots of old Emirati sayings. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Proverbs caricaturised in Turath, the magazine of the Emirates Heritage Club, to raise interest in the roots of old Emirati sayings. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

There is a story, set somewhere in the deserts of the UAE and with the names of the people involved long lost, that a guest was invited to the camp of a friend who was a bit greedy and did not want to share his food with guests.

So as the host put a plate of rice and meat in front of his guest, he interrupted him, asking him about the health of his father every time the man was about to dig into the food.

"Well my father is a bit ill. He has been suffering long and we have been giving him the best remedies…"

As the guest was lost in his speech the host ate up, leaving very little food for his companion.

The guest realised what had happened and decided to pull the same trick on this host the next time he was invited over to his tent.

As he placed the food in front of his greedy friend, he asked the same question: "So, how is your father?"

The friend replied: "Hamm wa mat [got a fever and died]," and immediately tucked into the food.

Hamm wa mat is an Emirati proverb applied whenever someone is in a hurry, and it was because of one Emirati's vigilance in seeking out the story behind the proverb that its origin has been discovered, and will be published in a coming book on Emirati proverbs.

For the past two decades, any gathering of old men across the UAE was likely to have a visit from Dr Rashid Al Mazrouei.

He could be found sitting in a corner, listening intently and pulling out a battered old notebook from the pocket of his kandura to note proverbs whenever they appeared in conversations.

The elderly at the majlis would make fun of this young Emirati, with his wife's father in particular signalling him whenever he sat with them.

"Write, write. We are about to talk," Dr Al Mazrouei recalls his father-in-law saying.

"The man had great knowledge and majority of the proverbs I have gathered were from him, as they were part of him and his conversations."

With more than 4,500 Emirati proverbs carefully collected and documented, Dr Al Mazrouei researched and investigated the stories and origins behind the proverbs, down to which tribes would say what and when. Desert tribes had different proverbs to those from the coast or mountains.

"I have always loved heritage, particularly oral heritage," says Dr Al Mazrouei, who is also a diplomat and director of Zayed Centre for Studies and Research.

"I made it my personal mission to go out there and start preserving different types of oral heritage."

Outside of his official duties, Dr Al Mazrouei would research, record and work on preserving heritage for current and future generations of Emiratis.

He can still be seen typing away on his smartphone these days whenever he hears something related to heritage.

With more than 20 books under his belt, mainly on the work of Emirati poets collected through their families and friends, his latest publication will be on proverbs.

The first volume will be from the letters "Alf" to "Zay" (in Arabic) to be published by end of this year by Emirates Heritage Club, with the rest of the proverbs published next year in a separate book.

"They are just so many, and those I couldn't verify or find the stories behind them I also included for the sake of preservation," he said.

Dr Al Mazrouei also encourages his children to collect and pass along proverbs whenever they hear them.

In the monthly magazine Turath, issued by the club, there are two caricatures accompanying two proverbs each month, published as a way to revive interest in them.

As part of a student project at Zayed University, Dr Al Mazrouei also asked a group of 20 students in Emirati Studies class to collect 10 proverbs each, and "not use Google or Twitter" to find them.

"I will know if you did that," he warned the students.

The professor teaching the class, Dr Jane Bristol-Rhys, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of graduate programme in museum studies, says this kind of project is important and reminds all those involved not to take heritage for granted.

"What we have discovered through this class project is that 'everyone knows the easy ones' when reminded," Dr Bristol-Rhys says.

"The reaction is, 'oh yes, my mother says that', but few students know more than just a few.

"Even when asking for help from family members, we have heard that few remember the others. Let's hope we haven't lost them."

She says proverbs can be found in all cultures.

"This is probably because they are instructive," Dr Bristol-Rhys says. Proverbs tell us what is honoured in a culture, what are the cultural values that we want to foster.

"They are honesty, wisdom, fairness, right action - the behaviour and attitudes we need to assimilate to be a part of the culture. Proverbs are fun because they do it in a way that makes us think, because sometimes the message is a bit hidden.

"In the case of Emirati proverbs, they speak to the same issues as the proverbs from other cultures but I believe that it is important to record and thus remember them, because many of the proverbs are also mini time capsules.

"They use words that are not commonly used now. They speak of situations that don't occur frequently any more and, essentially, they remind us of earlier generations."

The students struggled to find "unique" proverbs, with the ones often found in other Arab cultures more accessible and remembered.

"I wanted to find the different ones, those related to my tribe, or at least desert tribes," says Rifaa Al Mansouri, 22, who was able to unearth unique sayings from the desert after talking to five people in her family.

"Even after finding the proverbs, no one remembered the stories behind them, but they remember there was a story," she says.

One of the proverbs she found goes: "Ghalou min Shahedak ya Thaalab? Ghal Zanbee."

They asked the sly fox, who is your witness for your deeds? He replied, my tail.

"It is applied to someone who has done something bad and he has no one to verify his story but a good friend or partner in crime," Ms Al Mansouri says.

"It was an interesting project and I want to continue searching for proverbs whenever I can."

With stocks of cassette recordings and notebooks to go through, Dr Al Mazrouei is always open to young researchers joining him in documenting and doing their own field research on oral history.

"Only a few of our folktales have been noted down," he says.

"We need to document those as soon as possible and so I would love it if young Emiratis started doing that with the elders in their families.

"There is so much to be done, and I am one man. But I am here to guide and help in every way.

"Heritage should never be taken for granted. Without it, who are we?"