x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The stories that bring the nation's history to life

The people of the UAE have a rich oral-history tradition, passing down the events of family and country from one generation to the next through the stories of their lives. An ambitious project aims to record and preserve this important resource for future generations, writes Asmaa Al Hameli

About 700 interviews have been carried out for the National Centre for Documentation and Research's oral-history project. Courtesy The NCDR
About 700 interviews have been carried out for the National Centre for Documentation and Research's oral-history project. Courtesy The NCDR
Even in his 90s, Khamis Al Rumaithi remembers everything - events, people, places. His vivid memories go all the way back to his childhood in Abu Dhabi.
Born in 1920, he received no formal education and learnt to read and write by spending time with elders in his community.
Today, his memories and experiences are being put to good use, providing a unique record of life before and after the union.
When it comes to preserving history and heritage, Mr Al Rumaithi is a living example of the advice given by Sheikh Zayed, the founding President: "You must ask your parents about the conditions of the nation before the union.
"We have enjoyed happiness under the umbrella of the union and must be careful to ensure further progress and cooperate in supporting the union forward."
Mr Al Rumaithi's memories, and those of many like him, have become part of an oral-history project run by the National Centre for Documentation and Research.
It is an ambitious effort to preserve the history of the UAE and its people, and educate future generations about the lives of their ancestors by unearthing unwritten stories through the memories of an older generation, whose knowledge is a living treasure.
"The idea of the oral-history project was initiated by Sheikh Zayed," explains Dr Aisha Abdullah, the centre's director of research and knowledge services. "Following in his father's footsteps, Sheikh Khalifa announced 2008 as the year of National Identity."
The president commissioned an oral history archive that year. By listening to the stories of the oldest people still among us, and recording the country's history and heritage, the project preserves both the tangible and intangible aspects of Emirati society, she says.
While the country has an oral tradition of recording the past, it was not always done systematically.
At first the project focused on the country's tribes. "Then we changed to include the entire lifestyle," Dr Abdullah says.
The oral tradition of recording the past is crucial in a society in which the written word traditionally took second place to listening to stories. Even today, Arabs are known as the people of the ear as much as they are people of the book.
In the past, says Dr Abdullah, those interested in the country's history would interview community elders without checking the accuracy of their memories.
"We are meticulous in recording every detail of the elders, and we also seek written consent from each narrator allowing us to use it in future publications or relevant projects."
Before starting work on the oral-history project, the centre's team sought professional advice from the University of California at Berkeley.
"We invited Dr Victor Geraci to the UAE in 2009," says Dr Abdullah. "He is the associate director of the Regional Oral History Office at Berkeley. He kindly accepted our invitation and paid us a visit.
"We wanted his help in pursuing our big project and ensuring we were on the right track."
With more than 60 years' experience in recording oral history, the American university was in an ideal position to help with the kind of project the centre had in mind.
During Mr Geraci's stay in the UAE, he was taken on field trips to Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah, and shown the country's marine and wilderness areas.
Those trips helped Dr Geraci to compose a series of questions that related to everything from transport and education to social and political life. Other topics examined where people lived in the summer and winter, and on life in the oasis and along the coast.
"He helped us to find the angle we were looking for the project," Dr Abdullah says.
When members of the centre's team felt confident in their task, they were ready to begin work and four Emiratis were appointed to seek out the first subjects.
Those researchers - Shareena Al Qubaisi, Maitha Al Zaabi, Mariam Al Mazrouei and Abeer Basharahil - know they carry a big responsibility on their shoulders.
"The interviews focus on recording and documenting the narrator's biography," Ms Al Qubaisi explains. The next stage covers topics "such as the subject's genealogy and family tree, social and political life, and economic and religious life, including arts and architecture", she says.
"We also ask our interviewees information about the history of places in the UAE and the associated stories and inhabitants."
The researchers' daily routine begins each morning by setting out to interview elderly people in every corner of the country.
For the young women, the project has been an education in itself, broadening their knowledge of their country and its past.
Since the launch of the project, the team has conducted more than 700 interviews, involving both audio and video recording.
"Not only do we interview Emiratis, but expatriates who were present from 1920 to 1980," Ms Al Mazrouei says.
Children are important sources of information as well.
"As you know, some parents narrate the older pattern of living to their children, so that our offspring continue the cycle of oral transmission for generations to come," says Ms Al Mazrouei.
Spending time with the elderly has also had a profound influence on Ms Al Qubaisi's life. She has learnt invaluable lessons from their stories. Patience, she says, is at the top of her list.
"I had the habit of interrupting others before, but now I am more patient and have noticed the benefit of lending an ear," she says. "When you give elders a chance to speak, they will tell everything.
"The mere question of the past transports them to that era. They appreciate seeing that people care about their past."
She says she has learnt about poetry, traditional medicines, and Arabic words that have fallen into disuse, and some practises that seem strange to us now.
In the past, for example, camel urine was used to wash hair and keep it shiny.
"I was told by some women that the urine smelt like a plant and that people also used it for stomach aches and other ailments," she says. "I am fascinated at the stories I hear from elders. It doesn't mean all are true, but they are an ocean of knowledge. I also memorised new Arabic words used by elders."
Accents and dialects also vary from emirate to emirate.
"We say qunfez for hedgehog," Ms Al Qubaisi says. "In some emirates, they call it da'aliya. Do you see the difference?"
Ms Al Mazrouei also learnt new things from her elders.
"One grandma told me that they used al hebba al himra, a type of red-seed plant, to remove sand from children's eyes," she says. "They would place the seed in their eyes and it would cleanse off all dirt."
For Ms Al Mazrouei, the knowledge and experience gained from the project is indescribable.
"Who knows, one day I might be among those who share their past with the future generation," she says with a laugh.
The oral history project will not be over until the entire older generation has been interviewed. It is an ambitious task, but the numbers spoken to increase every year.
Advertisements in the media and at cultural festivals means a growing number of people know about the project. The plan is to publish a selection of stories from the interviews in book form.
"I invite Emiratis and guests of the UAE who may have treasure of information in their home to contact us to interview a member of their family," says Dr Abdullah.
aalhameli@thenational.ae
If you know anyone who has lived in the UAE for decades and would like to be part of the oral-history project, contact
abilkhair@ncdr.ae
msalzaabi@ncdr.ae
salqubaisi@ncdr.ae
msaeed@ncdr.ae
or call 02 4183525