UAE’s Lest We Forget initiative aims to maintain a strong link to the past

Thanks to contributions of objects from the local community, Lest We Forget, the UAE's very own grass roots memory project, is about to enter its third iteration at Mina Zayed's Warehouse421. We talk to the project's creative director, Dr Michele Bambling, and one of its most newest patrons, the renowned Emirati collector and antiquary, Ahmed Al Khoori.

Ayah Dhafer Al Heera, of the Lest We Forget, archiving Mr Ahmed Mohamed Al Khoori’s collection. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Powered by automated translation

At first sight, the scene that plays out in the small back room of a warehouse in Mina Zayed comes as a complete surprise.

As a hushed group of young, abaya-clad women remove a series of unlikely objects from a ragtag collection of boxes, their workspace is transformed from something resembling a cluttered photographic studio into a treasure trove filled with rare and antique delights.

Before long, century-old silver hair ornaments are sitting alongside daggers in fine scabbards and men’s belts finished with silver thread. In another corner are engraved brass jewellery boxes, which look to the uneducated eye like so many Victorian jelly moulds – that appear to multiply across the room like a swarm of heavy jellyfish.

As a young woman photographs a traditional Emirati coffee pot, or dallah, in the centre of the room, her collaborator and the project’s co-ordinator, Safiya Al Maskari, processes the images and enters each into the archive of photographs, recordings and contemporary artworks.

The scene becomes less surprising when the context is taken into consideration. We are in Warehouse421, the Mina Zayed home of the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and the women are working towards the latest iteration of the UAE’s continuing memory project, Lest We Forget.

“This is a new direction for us. Instead of using photographs, we’re really working with material culture this time,” says Michele Bambling, the creative director of Lest We Forget, the archival initiative the academic first launched in 2012, when she was teaching at Zayed University.

“We are still working with family photographs and we’re continuing to build an extensive archive, but now we are working with people’s personal effects – it can be jewellery, it can be attire, it can be things that people collected in their homes,” she says.

“We’re archiving them, photographing them, labelling them and capturing empirical information about them but what also interests us is the other side of their story – their context.

“Why did people collect these objects and hold onto them, care about them, give them as presents? The stories around those objects tell us a lot about life here and a lot about memories of the past.”

Bambling’s latest attempt to map the UAE’s memory of its passage through modernity follows the success of the first generation – eponymously titled – the Lest We Forget project.

The initiative resulted in Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999, an exhibition, book and archive of Emirati family photographs currently on display at Warehouse421. This also led to the creation of the Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory, which formed the UAE’s national pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale.

“I find that it’s very hard for people to be able to simply recount something from the past without a physical, tangible link to the intangible so we’re bringing in these objects as a catalyst and a stimulus that will allow us to talk about and explore memory,” says Bambling.

“And so even though we’re cataloguing these objects we’re also being very careful about capturing the oral histories that go with them,” she says. “We’re not just interested in, say, photographing a burqa. We’re also interested in the story of the woman who wore it, the story of the granddaughter who preserved it and we’re also interested in the response of young women working together to explore the burqa and its role in tradition.”

By working with interns on the project and asking them to respond creatively to the archived items, Bambling hopes the initiative will connect the past with the present in ways that have a contemporary relevance.

“They’re exploring their cultural heritage in ways that are meaningful to them so its not about fact-learning or knowing about the past,” Bambling insists. “It’s about using the past to create works that are inherently rooted in their identity and rich history and also about keeping traditions alive, which we hope will be of interest to people of many ages.”

If the objects temporarily donated to the Lest We Forget archive by the renowned Emirati collector Ahmed Al Khoori are any measure of its appeal, then the latest iteration of the project is already having the desired effect.

The owner of more than 9,000 items of traditional Emirati, Omani and Bedouin arts and crafts, Al Khoori has been collecting since he was a young boy.

His passion began with obtaining stamps and coins and eventually grew to include weapons, jewellery and even architectural features such as windows and doors.

Al Khoori’s recent collaboration with Bambling and the Lest We Forget initiative is the first time that he has granted access for cataloguing part of his collection.

“Six or seven months ago they asked if I would be interested in contributing my jewellery, so I came here, saw the exhibition and thought why not,” says Al Khoori.

“I’ve always said that I wanted to promote UAE culture and heritage, I’ve been writing a book for the last seven years to do just this, but I thought that working with the Sheikha Salama Foundation represented a better opportunity to do just that.”

In an unprecedented move, Al Khoori has also allowed items from his collection including swords, traditional khanjar daggers, coffee pots and rare items of jewellery to be brought to the Lest We Forget initiative offices in Warehouse421, where they have been carefully documented before being returned to his collection.

“This is a man who has lived his whole life in Abu Dhabi, who has collected objects that relate to the whole of the country but who is also part of the history here,” says Bambling, who hopes that Al Khoori’s contribution will serve as an example to other members of the community.

“What he has collected is fascinating because there are many objects in his collection that other people may have in their homes and we hope they will inspire those people to look into their own collections and find these things, think about them and maybe share them.”

Al Khoori hopes he can inspire others to preserve the country’s history. “I hope this will allow people to appreciate their ancestors, to see how hard they worked. Now we have the oil but I remember in the 1960s when we didn’t have fresh water, it used to come from other places,” says Al Khoori. “People have to know that their ancestors worked very hard and they did their best for us.”

• Members of the community are invited to contribute to the archive and tell their story. This can be done at the archival studio at Warehouse421 between 10am and 5pm or by appointment between 6pm and 8pm every day except on Monday. To book an appointment, email contact@lwf.ae

nleech@thenational.ae