Building on the past

The culture of Abu Dhabi is surviving, despite the modernisation of the city. Rosemary Behan reports from Liwa.
Mubarak Al Mazrouei walks across a sand dune in the Liwa region of the UAE. Andre Forget / The National
Mubarak Al Mazrouei walks across a sand dune in the Liwa region of the UAE. Andre Forget / The National
The road is buffeted by wind and sand. Between Tarif and Madinat Zayed, the sky thickens as the coarse grains shoot across the hard surface, wiping out road markings and stinging our eyes even inside the vehicle. As we approach Mezaria'a, the wind drops, the sky clears, the dunes rise and suddenly it is like driving across the ocean. All around us, as far as they eye can see, are wild, undulating mountains of sand. The breeze catches their soaring ridges, splashing dust into the air like water from thecrest of a wave. And on the way to the Moreeb Dune, tons of sand have spilt across the middle of the road, forcing drivers to swerve.

At an overnight camp in a desert valley overlooking the great Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter - a 650,000 square kilometre expanse swallowing a large part of Saudi Arabia,Oman, Yemen and the UAE - my guide, Mubarak, explains the continuing allure of this place and its importance as a place of refuge for Emiratis. "We call it tabiri. It means to be in a natural place with no roads, no buildings and no people. Even though I work and live in Abu Dhabi, I am a Bedouin and to me the desert is like a seven-star hotel. I come here alone or with friends, we go hunting and sleep out. Sometimes I stay for months. I rest very well here."

Mubarak removes his shoes and we walk to a lookout. The view is spectacular. The landscape is just as inhospitable as it was when Wilfred Thesiger travelled here between 1945 and 1950, and it is hard to imagine there ever being roads, buildings, or people living permanently here. Mubarak then receives a call on his mobile phone - the Mazayin Dhafra Camel Festival is under way and he is helping to organise things. He owns some 150 camels, which graze "somewhere near the Saudi border", but he laughs if I ask if he ever rides them. "Why would I ride a camel when I have an SUV? We use the camels for racing, and their milk."

The modern world, it seems, is not totally at odds with traditional Bedouin life. "The things which make our lives better, the things which make it easier, we take," Mubarak adds. "Things which do not help us, we leave." This is echoed by Salem al Mazrouei, who was born in Madinat Zayed and is the operations director of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (Adach), which brings visitors to stay at the tented camp between November and March. "It is very important for people to come here to see theimportance of the desert in our culture. We are supporting this kind of initiative because maybe people will hear about the desert but they will not know. And if they do not know what it is like, they will not understand us."

Salem Al Mazrouei is talking about the Bedouin mindset, a way of thinking that is adaptive, resilient and open to change, but rooted in tradition. "In Bedouin culture there is always a solution. We try not to have a clash. If my friend says something I don't like, I try not to be upset. If there has been a mistake, we all try to solve the problem together. We know that the desert is better than a home. We make a fire, make coffee and tea and spend the night as friends. Even as our towns get bigger, we are a part ofthe desert and we cannot live without it."

Although they now have roads, electricity, cars and houses built of concrete in the agricultural settlements in Liwa, the crescent of oases centred around Mezaria'a still looks much as Wilfred Thesiger described them in Arabian Sands: "Palms planted along thesalt flats, close under high steep-sided dunes, and hollows in the sand." Although Thesiger was a perceptive observer of theBedouin and their landscape, he underestimated their character and was wrong about their future. "Even before I left Arabia in 1950, the Iraq Petroleum Company had started to search for oil in the territories of Abu Dhabi and Dubai," he wrote. "They soon discovered it in enormous quantities, and as a result the life I have described in this book disappeared forever." In 1977 Thesiger revisited Abu Dhabi, calling it "an Arabian nightmare, the final disillusionment" and stated that "this book remains a memorial to a vanished past, a once magnificent people."

But at the camel festival at Madinat Zayed, the present is merely the past with modern accoutrements. Here thousands gather from across the Gulf, business men and some women who one would think the modern world would own completely. But here traditions live on. I joined a convoy of dozens of SUVs which careered across the desert to view a Sheikh's new camels.

When we arrived at the pen, people jumped out of their vehicles before forming a circle, with spontaneous music and dancing. I watched women in dark burkas - an essential defence against the windswept environment - load piles of handicrafts for sale atthe market. And, while some camel traders and visitors stay in tents, I was invited for dinner in a modern version, a concrete bungalow in the middle of a flat plain, complete with bedrooms, chandeliers and air conditioning.

Out on the terrace, in an open-air majlis, or meeting room, dozens of modern Bedouin reclined on cushions, shared food and exchanged traditional greetings with other tribe members. In the tent next door to this building, a Qatari whose camels had won him 17 new cars was celebrating into the night with a troupe of live musicians playing traditional Emirati music.

I spoke to Rashad Ali bin Al Mansoori, a 32-year-old transport company owner from Alilabanah, a village 30 kilometres from Hameem, a settlement on the easternmost edge of Liwa. One of Mr Al Mansoori's camels, Alkaida, won this year's camel beauty competition and was labelled "the prettiest camel in the Gulf." His pride was obvious. "I live for work, and for camels," Mr Al Mansoori said. "The late Sheikh Zayed said 'he who has no past has no present and no future', and he was right. Still to this day our traditions are still going on and we are still participating." Other traditional Emirati pastimes include falconry, Arabic dancing and fishing. "These traditions were loved by the ruling families", Al Mansoori said. "And the reason these traditions continue isbecause the rulers and Government have supported these sports. These industries make a very good living for local people so no matter how advanced technology becomes, the traditions still survive." But what does he think of Abu Dhabi, the "Arabian nightmare" described by Thesiger? "I love it", he says. "Although I still live here in Liwa I am so happy when I see that my town has taken its place in the world in such a short time."

Abu Dhabi, of course, has cultural plans that would have made Thesiger quake. In five year's time, Saadiyat island alone will boast a vast new cultural district containing five state-of-the-art venues, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a branch of theGuggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid, a Maritime Museum and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum. But all of this is not just about making Abu Dhabi a new tourist or arts centre. It is about making Abu Dhabi thecultural headquarters of the Middle East and an attempt to stimulate a new international cultural awareness through theacquisition and display of cutting edge modern art. At the exhibition of the plans at the Emirates Palace hotel, the Gehry partners cite Abu Dhabi as a unique coming together of cultural awareness and financial resources.

"The landscape, the opportunities, the requirement to build something that the world would come to and the possible resource to accomplish it opened tracks that were not likely to be considered anywhere else." Similar limitless ambition is on show from themakers of the Louvre, who boast that the museum will "span every geographical area and every historical artistic period."

Yet the biggest challenge facing Abu Dhabi is not how to build the cultural future. It is about maintaining the cultural identity necessary to sustain such projects amid the constant pressures of globalisation. Research recently commissioned by Adach suggested that Abu Dhabi's young people were seriously at risk of losing their identity through the fast pace of development. Theincreasing use of English has led some Emirati students to require remedial lessons in Arabic and children raised by foreign nannies and increasing exposure to television has prompted local education councils to involve teachers in workshops to bring Emirati culture and heritage onto the school curriculum. Bassem Kudsi, a spokesman for Adach, aid that "failure was not an option" when it came to preserving the nation's cultural identity. "The world is now a family of nations, but unless you have your own traditions, you will all become vanilla flavour. We are very proud of our culture and heritage, and if we allow our traditions to die out we will have nothing to offer. We cannot develop at the expense of our history."

One of those charged with teaching Emirati culture is Jane Bristol-Rhys, professor of anthropology at Zayed University. She said there was a "surprising lack of interest" in Saadiyat Island from young people. "You have to remember that when Abu Dhabi was built, it was built around the immediate needs of the oil industry and the people: roads, hospitals, houses, airports, banks and schools. People are not used to having such museums and art galleries. When I take people to see the exhibition at the Emirates Palace it isn't a case of them saying 'wow, they're building a Guggenheim here', but 'what's a Guggenheim?' But it's a learning curve. Once it's here, they'll go. We're building up the momentum and I'm particularly excited about the performing arts centre, which will showcase music and song, which people do connect with now."

Currently teaching a course on architecture in the region, Bristol-Rhys says Emiratis need to guard against a patronising and tasteless rendering of the country's culture. "Some of the stuff marketed as Emirati culture is truly hideous", she said. "When we look at the stuff that is sold to tourists, we get pictures of camels, coffee pots, baskets of those horrible scale models of Bedouin encampments. I've even seen these salt and pepper shakers where the pepper is shaped like a woman in an abaya and the manis the salt, dressed in white. They call it the sheikh and sheikha. The danger is that it is much easier to put these things out there than to look a little deeper."

Through the study of Emirati building styles, the architecture of mosques, the translation of traditional poetry and the performance of dance, Bristol-Rhys encourages her students to look at their heritage in context. She sites the importance of family networks and the enthusiasm for national dress as evidence that traditions are still very much alive.

"Languages everywhere are changing, and some are under threat but most of my students are incredibly proud of their Arabic and they are always telling me that mine is not up to snuff. Yes, some vocabulary is being lost but languages are not static. Two new volumes about the Khaleej, the Gulf dialect, have just been published. When people are concerned about heritage and culture they sometimes over-react, and they try to preserve it in some kind of aspic which is exactly the opposite of what made these people so resilient."

Just as Wilfred Thesiger mistakenly feared that "the traditional Bedu way of life had been irrevocably destroyed by theintroduction of motor transport, Bristol-Rhys thinks the Emirates should beware of outside prejudices obscuring an obvious and uniquely Emirati approach to cultural change.

"In general people here are very well educated. Emiratis had to be very adaptive and accommodating to survive here in the old days and now they don't see any disconnect between the modern world and their traditions. Cultural heritage is kept alive in families, and I have seen from the closeness of families and the way people treat their elders that the family network is still very strong. These are an adaptive and resilient people. and they have great pride in their past."

Published: April 17, 2008 04:00 AM


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