Live history project tells of UAE's maritime past

Old photographs and memories of how the families lived before oil are the subject of an exhibition and a book launched by DP World

The two-week exhibition showcases sepia-tinted photographs of an age when pearl divers and fishermen depended on the sea for their survival. Razan Alzayani / The National
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DUBAI // An ambitious live history project focusing on the residents of Dubai and the rest of the UAE and their memories of the sea was launched yesterday by ports company DP World.

The Dreams of the Sea: The Dubai Maritime History Project was announced at the Heritage Village at an event attended by diplomats, business heads and government officials.

The two-week exhibition, which begins today, showcases sepia-tinted photographs of an age when pearl divers and fishermen depended on the sea for their survival. Bilingual videos of historians and divers speaking of their family's maritime links will also be screened.

A video booth has been set up where Emiratis and expatriates can record their own stories. These videos will be reviewed and added to an interactive website,

Among the first to record her thoughts was Mahra Alaryani, an Emirati graduate of Zayed University.

"I remember my grandmother's stories about how the men would spend three to six months at sea and what the sea meant to them," she said.

"Their food was mainly from the sea; it was the reason for their existence, it was the main source of their lives."

At the official opening, Jamal Majid bin Thaniah, the vice chairman of DP World, spoke of the transformation of the emirate and traced Dubai's history as a commercial port.

"The people of Dubai turn the smallest opportunity into ambitious ideas," he said.

"Through this exhibition we would like the people to tell the story of its maritime history through film and images."

Mr bin Thaniah also recalled growing up in Dubai. "My friends and I used to run along the sandy banks of the creek, breathing in the salty fresh air of the sea and feeling the buzz of the dhows and vessels loading and unloading cargo."

The project also includes the release of a book, Dreams of the Sea, in Arabic and English before April.

Ali Saqr Al Suweidi, the president of the Emirates Environmental Marine Group, spoke of a time when people's lives were linked to the sea, before the discovery of oil.

"My family is a pearl-diving family and I would hear stories from my father and grandfather about how for months men at sea would sometimes strike lucky and sometimes not find any luck," he said.

"To live in this country they had to really work hard and this is the heritage I'm trying to teach the children.

"It's important to tell these stories to people of my country and those outside."

Shatha Al Mulla, an architect and engineer with the Architectural Heritage department of the Dubai Municipality, said youth could draw inspiration from the past.

Ms Al Mulla drew a connection with her own fascination of sketching boats to her family maritime heritage.

"My great grandfather was a pearl diver and my grandfather was a businessman who traded in pearls all over the world ... My sketches of boats sailing into the open sea translated into a design project in university."

Ms Al Mulla tracked the emirate's growth from 1822 when there were 1,200 residents and 90 boats for pearl diving and fishing to 1908 when the population grew to 10,000 and 400 boats and today's population of 2 million and 25,000 boats entering annually.

Like other speakers, she stressed the need to preserve the country's maritime history for the next generation.

The exhibition also displays old photographs of Dubai, featuring dozens of sandstone homes with wind towers bordering the Creek and the beginnings of Jebel Ali port in the early 1980s.

Dreams of the Sea runs from January 14 to 27 at the Dubai Heritage Village in Shindagah Historical Area.