What counts as history in a young nation?

Dr. Abdulla al Rayess (R) director general of the National Archives, showing the box in which Emirati families can archive their historical documents (Ravindranath K / The National)
Dr. Abdulla al Rayess (R) director general of the National Archives, showing the box in which Emirati families can archive their historical documents (Ravindranath K / The National)

How should a country remember itself? Does it just record the achievements of its leaders in the public arena, or does it include the minutiae of the everyday life of an average citizen? For the UAE, a young country that has experienced so much change over an incredibly short span of time, this question is doubly tricky.

As The National reported yesterday, the National Archives is trying to broaden the way it collects artefacts to reflect all levels of society. This includes contacting 250,000 Emirati families so they can copy and record noteworthy items. One could argue that the story of a country and its people is more accurately told through this kind of material in the interstices between the better-publicised moments.

The next question is how this material will be curated. Trends of historical research tend to wax and wane, with a style popular in one generation not popular with the following one. In the past, there was a deferential approach in which the focus was on the leaders but now the trend is more towards oral histories of those at all levels of a society. Collecting a wide range of material will improve the chances of future historians finding information to suit.

For a country as young as the UAE – albeit with a rich human history stretching back thousands of years – there are other factors at play. Unlike many countries, the federation of the emirates occurred recently enough for those who witnessed it to still be with us. It is the same with the change that oil revenues brought about, with older Emiratis able to recall how life was before.

Other aspects of UAE history are even more recent. The death of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, was just over 10 years ago. Few would dispute that the tenor of Sheikh Zayed’s rule is of crucial importance to the story of the UAE and the country’s tolerant attitudes have become famous in a region more notable for its fractious politics.

The stories of the Emiratis who knew him – ranging from well-connected cabinet ministers to modest farmers – also need to be collected while these witnesses to history are still with us. The study of history is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle, with future historians hoping to have access to as many pieces of the jigsaw as possible so they can create an accurate record of the past. Initiatives like the one announced by the National Archives show this is underway.

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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