x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Students uncover secrets of UAE lore

Concerned that knowledge of national folklore was fading away with the passing years, students at Zayed University decided to do something about it.


DUBAI // Some students might find a difficult question a reason to change the subject or stop trying. But for four female Emiratis at Zayed University, the challenges in finding the origins of many UAE customs just served as inspiration - the driving force behind publishing a book about the customs that reflect their national identity. The four media students developed The Secrets Behind the UAE Identity as part of their graduating project. The manuscript was finished within two months.

As a part of their marketing strategy, they have used social networking websites, created radio advertisements and held mall events where the book was distributed for free. The project cost Dh60,000 and half of that money came from their own pockets. They won first place in the annual Tamaiaz and Falak Tayyeb awards in the marketing, communication and media category. The competition, sponsored by Mawarid Finance, is designed to encourage creativity and innovation in Emirati college graduates.

"Like most of my senior students, they were good planners and organisers and they achieved their goals," said Badran A Badran, their professor at the college of communication and media sciences. "What we didn't expect is the extent of the positive feedback from the public. "Many [private and public organisations] requested copies of the publication to distribute to their employees and guests. That's a clear sign that these students did something that the UAE clearly needs at this point and that is to tell its unique story to the world."

The spark of the idea came when one of the students recalled a story told to her by her father. "We were sitting and thinking, then I remembered a story: why the a'gal [the band that holds a gutra headscarf in place] is black," said Bushra Al Madani, 21. "My dad told us that story once on a Friday long time ago." While uncovering more tales about their past and their cultural norms, they visited different emirates, conducted interviews with the elderly as well as researchers who studied UAE's heritage. Each story was documented and verified by several sources.

"The research part was extremely scary, because we didn't know if the information we were looking for existed or not," said Khawla Al Mutewei, 23, one of the co-authors along with Marwa Al Tayer, 22, and Amal Al-Mulla, 24. "When we started gathering the information," she said, "it was interesting that people had different stories." In a survey distributed among 100 Emiratis, only 28 per cent knew some of the answers to questions about the origins of Emirati traditions and customs.

For example, the strings on a kandoura - the tarboosha - drew many different responses. "It's only a set of strings, so how did that become a part of our culture? Some people said it's there to get the flies out of the way," Ms Al Madani said. The real reason, they eventually learned, was that the strings and their lengths were considered expressions of love. "It was shocking that even our grandparents hardly knew any of this. We were like OK, our tradition and heritage is really getting lost. So it was really important for us to actually form this book," said Ms Al Madani.

The book, sponsored by the Regulatory Transportation Authority and Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, aims to appeal to both foreigners and Emiratis. "Not only locals were impressed, but also foreigners, who said they were afraid of asking because they thought it would be offensive," Ms al Madani said. "They were looking for a book like this but it didn't exist until now." newsdesk@thenational.ae