Sunday, April 29, 2007

UAE: Heritage

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born the son of a British diplomat in Ethiopia, educated at Eton and Oxford, then returned to Ethiopia to attend the coronation of Emperor Haile Selasse and explore eastern Africa, becoming at 23 the first European to enter the Afar Sultanate, a predecessor of modern Eritrea. He fought in Ethiopia and North Africa during World War II, and eventually settled in Kenya, where he became part of a Samburu family. Finally, in 1994, poor health forced his return to Britain to live in a retirement home in Surrey, where he finally died in August 2003 at the age of 93. This death was widely remarked because of a single book he wrote called Arabian Sands, which chronicles his journey across the Empty Quarter from Hadhramawt to Abu Dhabi. I've never read it, but it has been ranked as the greatest travel account ever written, and much as with works like Moby-Dick and Gone with the Wind, I feel like I've read it vicariously just from hearing so much about it. Today, too, it perhaps serves as a primary source for history, as nothing like the world Thesiger crossed is left today.

Wilfred Thesiger does, however, have a place in the modern UAE, in virtually every bookstore in the entire country, where there are special stands of books by him, books about him, and books about his books. Much of the UAE's past exists in this form. Society has changed, but people remember, and strive to preserve those memories. Thesiger's books are one example, as is a keen interest in Bedouin poetry, with many contemporary Emirati poets writing in classical styles, or in some cases combining them with new. Another is in the government's intense encouragement of archaeology, which partly serves to establish the antiquity of civilization in the country in a would where everyone likes to be ancient, but also fits a broader pattern of displaying heritage and culture that leaps out at the visitor as surely as the modern glitz and glamor. Even the dozens of crumbling towers which dot the countryside of an emirate like Ras al-Khaimah have been carefully catalogued in a joint project of the government, Emirates Bank International, and the Society for Arabian Studies.

The most frequently visited heritage site in the UAE may be Dubai's museum in the city's old fort overlooking the Khor Dubai. The fort looks much like many others, with plain brown walls, towers on each corner, and a fairly modest size. The immediate area is filled with restored traditional mud-brick architecture, though mainly tourists jam the streets of what once was an upscale residential neighborhood now filled by travel agents, financial specialists of different kinds, and an interesting number of cloth wholesalers. The courtyard contains either models or artifacts of old bits of life in the area, such as an elevated outside bed for sleeping on hot nights, while the inside has interpretive displays of pre-oil life in Dubai, ending with a multimedia presentation of scenes and sounds from the city's development. This heritage is multi-cultural; there is no Salman b. al-Hindi here preaching against the evils of non-Arab impurities. Text displays often mention people from other regions who lived in the Gulf, and there is even an account of how parts of a Bedouin war dance were learned from East Africans.

Such heritage sites dot all the emirates. As I hinted at in "Tales Told of Houses Made of Palms," Sharjah's fort has been reconstructed as it was in the early 20th century, and is next to a heritage village with museums and reconstructions set around wide open spaces where South Asian guest workers get together for evening cricket matches of their own while talking about the 2007 World Cup. Somehere near Dubai is a place called "Hatta Heritage Village" which I didn't go to, but which recreates a traditional mountain village in the region. Every emirate's fort has been revived as a museum except that of Ras al-Khaimah, which was a museum before the emir decided he wanted to live there, and Ajman, where they apparently didn't have a fort and so had to put their museum in an old police station. In Fujairah, where I decided to cut short my visit because it was just too hot, they have a full guide to historic buildings around the emirate, though they seem to have left out those of Dibba, which thanks to the abstract expressionist political geography which characterizes the Musandam Peninsula is divided between Fujairah, Sharjah, and Oman.

Not all the heritage is architectural, and the UAE seems to rival Jordan in the extent of its park and nature reserve system. In al-Ain, home to the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History, is an oasis preserve where you can wander through an oasis maintained much as it was before the oil age, albeit with the addition of paved walkways and palm-built "Oasis Restaurant and Cafe." The many date palms along the Wadi al-Ain of what used to be Tuwwam are still tended by farmers and irrigated with stone falaj channels spread out in a maze of pathways among them, lending a quiet trickle of water to the silence before the call to prayer rises from the several small, mud-built mosques around the oasis.

Shaykh Zayed, considered the Father of the UAE, was among other things an environmentalist who in the 1970's publicly gave up hunting to encourage wildlife conservation. The UAE seems to have higher environmental standards than any other country I've been to with the possible exception of Canada. Cars all have alarms that go off when you reach 120 km/hr, and aside from the desert road to Liwa people seem to respect the speed limits - one taxi driver told me that there's a lot of electronic and aerial monitoring. Several times when I stopped to consider it I looked around and realized there was no litter in sight, though a few other times there was. Cities are being designed with lots of open spaces for trees, and there are parks around some of the khors, though emirs also like to commandeer a lot of that property for palaces.

Perhaps most emblematic of the country's commitment to nature is the Sharjah Desert Park, home to a wildlife center that houses specimens of dozens of frequently rare or endangered species that used to populate the desert. It isn't just a tourist attraction - zoologists there are working to breed many of these animals and have the dream of one day restoring species to the wild. I have forgotten too many of the individual details, but it is enthralling just to recall the open spaces where tiny desert birds fly overhead while lizards scurry around the rocks and streams, or where magnificient gazelles, similar to deer but smaller, somehow more majestic in their coloring, and swift when they want to get moving, stand near a cluster of seemingly plodding oryxes, as well as famlies of baboons sitting together under a shady ledge. Many of the animals have very clear adaptations for desert life: There was a whole section of them that are nocturnal, rodents and some wildcats with oversized eyes and ears so sensitive they can hear the worms borrowing underground.

Being a historian, I even involved myself in a bit of heritage-seeking of my own. One of my goals was to see for myself a tell called Kush, a likely candidate for the medieval port of Julfar, located in the area of a village north of Ras al-Khaimah. It's not exactly a big tourist draw, so LP didn't even mention it's existence, but I hoped it would be easy to find since "Kush" was apparently the local name for it. I snagged a taxi and when, since the driver knew the village, just had him go there where I began asking around. Even in a small village there were lots of guest workers, though they were able to point me to one guy (out of about 12) who was "a local" and would know. He did, even though he seemed to find it strange that I was asking. To avoid misunderstanding I asked him to feed directions straight to the taxi driver who, as we turned off the paved road and across a field seemed to wonder what he'd gotten into. At a certain point I asked him to stop, got out, and paid him, as he drove off giving me a look like I was crazy.

I explored the field a bit, which was mostly small dark rocks and reddish soil, until finally I found a fence with an old rusty sign about how it was some sort of site of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and visitors should keep out. The gate was open, though, and the mound was in sight where about ten years ago now the archaeological team from Durham had found the remains of a tower dating from the late Sassanid period and which, at a later layer, happened to also yield the oldest known coffee beans. Today it was again inhabited, but instead of Persian soldiers it was a group of junior high-age kids who mapped well onto Disney's "Mighty Ducks." Seeing a stranger they called me on up, and with them I took in the view through the clear, sunny sky of the black-and-brown Hajar Mountains to the north and east, with the village off to the west. It was perhaps the first time I derived some sort of direct research benefit from one of my trips, as if I'm ever in a discussion over whether this was in fact Julfar, I'll at least have a halfway educated opinion.

At least one of the two people who travelled with Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter is still alive and living in the UAE today, though he hates the people who occasionally come by to ask about the journey. He is leading a comfortable life, and is glad for the changes that have come about. Thesiger, however, felt that modern technology was ruining humanity, beginning with the automobile, which he considered an "abomination." He also felt that the UAE of today had betrayed their Bedouin Arab heritage by accepting oil wealth and leaving behind their traditional lives of hardship in the desert. Yet there's an oddness to his personal place in history. I forget exactly who he worked for, but his official purpose for making his journey was to map the region; in particular he charted a path to Liwa, undoubtedly suggesting that future travellers to that oasis might want to start at Abu Dhabi rather than in Yemen. He hated the changes that have come to the Gulf, but he himself was a herald and enabler of those changes. Perhaps he knows that were it not him it would be another, and so he might as well have grabbed onto the opportunity to experience the old desert while it remained. I wonder, then, without having read him, if what he wished to explore was not space, but time, a time in some sort of evolutionary scheme of history he saw in his own past and wanted flee to because it made him in some ways more comfortable than the technological world he found in England during his adolescence. Like the exploration of space, however, the exploration of time can move in more than one direction, and while they remember and honor their own past, the people of the United Arab Emirates and boldly and optimistically charting a course into an unknown future where they hope all dreams can be fulfilled.



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