x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The man with all our memories

On International Archives Day, Rym Ghazal meets the official entrusted with the job of archiving the history of the UAE and preserving the country’s heritage for future generations.

Dr Abdulla El Reyes, left, the director general of the National Archives. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Dr Abdulla El Reyes, left, the director general of the National Archives. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

A single document can change the way we think about history.

One example, typed out on an Arabic typewriter, is an agreement for a new “Arabian Gulf” currency signed on the 7th of July, 1965 by the rulers of Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Ajman, Sharjah, Dubai, Fujairah, Umm Al Qaiwain and Ras Al Khaimah.

With each ruler’s signature distinct, the document also illustrates an idea that has been in the works for decades before proposals for a common GCC currency, indeed for more than 15 years before the creation of the GCC itself.

Then there are events captured in documents that could have changed the course of history.

Following the 1967 six-day Arab-Israeli war, and upon his return from the Arab summit in Khartoum, Sudan, the founding father of the nation, the late Sheikh Zayed, decreed that oil exports to western countries were to be stopped.

“We always thought that the first time this was decided was in 1973, but based on documents we received and analysed, Sheikh Zayed had already decided on this much earlier,” said Dr Abdulla El Reyes, the director general of the newly renamed National Archives.

A man who “hated history” in school has ended up being a beacon and patron of historical documents and facts as the head of the National Center of Documentation and Research (NCDR) for more than 14 years. He is now a walking history book.

And this year, Dr El Reyes hailed a new name for the centre.

The change was inspired by a trip to the UK last year, when Dr El Reyes pointed to the sign for The National Archives and said to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed – the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Presidential Affairs and the Chairman of NCDR – how simple and to the point the name was.

“Even though there was a long process to have the name changed as it was part of a law, through His Highness’s great support we got through the steps and had it changed in few months,” he said.

In July, last year the UAE Cabinet approved the issuance of a federal law amending the federal law on renaming the National Centre for Documentation and Research to The National Archives.

Road signs have already been changed, while signs on the building itself will soon be updated, as will the archive’s website.

“Our title was long and sometimes we got confused with the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research,” said Dr El Reyes. “Now our new title reflects exactly what we are: we are the entire country’s archives.”

Founded in 1968 as the Centre for Documentation and Research, and renamed the NCDR under Federal Decree Number 7, 2008, the facility is one of the oldest archival repositories in the Arabian Gulf.

It houses thousands of records about the UAE and the wider Arabian Gulf region.

A linguist and professor who has been the head of the centre since 2000, Dr El Reyes has a mammoth task ahead of him when 202 government entities begin depositing and archiving their documents at the National Archives.

To make space, a new building is being built in Mussaffah, which will be ready in about 18 months, to house the stacks of documents that will flood in from across the country.

“We will be dealing with millions of documents, but of course the important ones with historic and strategic importance will be the ones picked, restored, digitised, indexed, saved and archived,” he said.

Over the next five years, documents dating from 1971 to 2009 will be sorted and archived, to be followed by further five-year projects until the work is up to date.

This project will eventually lead to each Government entity having its own archiving department, working closely with The National Archives, which in turn will send teams of experts to train and help with the nationwide initiative.

More than 4,000 jobs will be created, says Dr El Reyes, and a new degree course on archival studies was launched this year at the Higher Colleges of Technology to help train more Emiratis to enter the field.

“It is a great challenge, but we have already seen a change in the manner in which archiving is viewed,” he said.

He recalls that one of his first emails to all government entities in 2008 was “stop shredding of all documents”.

“There is always resistance in the beginning of any change, with some refusing to provide documents as they say it is top secret or confidential,” he said. “But if they are important historically, they need to be saved and protected for the future.”

The contents of the archive have been collected from repositories around the world – American, British, Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Ottoman, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and, most recently, the Vatican. The records cover a wide range of topics in a variety of different formats, the common thread being that each item should shed light on life in the UAE or the Arabian Gulf region.

Documents and manuscripts that are more than 500 years old can be found in the archives with references to the area that became the UAE, on topics such as pearl diving, tribes, navigation and islands.

An example of the treasure to be found is a map dating to 1559, engraved by Italian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi on wood and sent to Sultan Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman the Magnificent.

It mentions a “Yas tribe”, describing it as “good Arab people” in Italian with their place of residency marked in a place called Muscalat in what is known today as Liwa. The map was translated into Turkish by the Muslim cartographer Haci or Haji Ahmed.

The centre also collects a wide variety of indigenous materials, ranging from oral and written histories to rare books and manuscripts and audio-visual materials such as photographs, films and recordings.

A whole laboratory has been set up dedicated to digitising old films and photos and preserving them for future generations.

There are more than two million photos of the late Sheikh Zayed and the President, Sheikh Khalifa. There are also more than 4,000 hours of video of Sheikh Zayed, provided by his personal videographer, Mohammed Al Khaledi, who is overseeing the process of digitising and archiving the material.

“Many great things are taking place at our centre,” said Dr El Reyes. “We publish books based on our findings and we are always working on some project or other.”

This month, the UAE, represented by its National Archives, joined the International Oral History Association, the first Arab state to do so. The Oral History Project, which began in 2008, is being implemented and overseen by the National Archives to document the events of the past though the citizens and residents who lived through them.

Aside from the documents hidden away in databases, copies of some of the country’s most important treaties, maps and rare photographs are on display at the centre, where visitors can take a journey through some of the UAE’s most important milestones.

One of the documents hanging on wall is the original description of the country’s flag, including a sketch of it with its colours identified in writing, since the document is in black and white.

Dated December 13, 1971, with “the British Embassy, Abu Dhabi, protocol and conference department” printed on it, the document states the official description of the flag of the UAE as contained in Federal Resolution No 4 of 1971.

“The flag is an oblong whose length is twice its breadth,” it says. “It is divided into four parts which are oblong in shape. The first is red and is the end of the flag next to the mast. Its length is the breadth of the flag and its breadth is a quarter of the length of the flag. The other three parts constitute the rest of the flag and are perpendicular, equal and parallel. The upper is green, the middle white and the lower black.”

Dr El Reyes is a former national bowling champion and still plays football as goalkeeper for the National Archives team. Teamwork and their love of the job will ensure the archive work will be completed by his staff, he says.

“The archives will outlast us, as they are safely put away in buildings built against all kinds of disasters, because if you lose your archives, you lose your memories,” he said. “And no one can live without their memories. They are too precious.”

rghazal@thenational.ae