Personal museums offer insight into UAE life before the oil rush

Personal museums built up by hoarders with eclectic tastes offer a peak into life in the emirates before the oil boom.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Lt Ali Darwish built a palm hut outside his house six years ago, he intended nothing more than to create a simple space in which he could commemorate his family's history.
He covered the walls with family portraits and heirlooms - old rifles, swords and a few pieces of jewellery.
Within two years, the areesh house was overflowing with items he had collected or been given by friends who knew of his love for history. Then other families, schoolchildren and visitors began to hear about his collection and started to visit.
To hold the growing collection, he built a large makhzan, the traditional stone house of the mountain tribes, but within two years that too was full. Undeterred, Lt Darwish again upgraded, this time to a large khaimah, the traditional style of winter palm house. And so it grew.
Today, what is now known as the Bin Darwish Heritage Village includes a replica of a kitchen, a traditional stone flour grinder, two types of well, a restored 1958 Land Rover, three six-metre models of traditional boats, an elevated sleeping platform and two cannon donated by the RAK Police.
Lt Darwish's museum is not unique; such personal museums can be found in gardens across the UAE, created by Emiratis determined to honour the hard lives of their forebears in the years before oil changed everything.
Some choose to display their private collections in the majlis, or sitting room, of their homes, where they can be admired by visitors, but it has become increasingly popular for families to create small personal museums.
The style of such museums often reflects the ancestry of the family. In some neighbourhoods of RAK, for example, the tops of palm-frond houses, once used by coastal families, can be seen; in others, replicas of small, stone mountain houses.
Lt Darwish's collection has now swollen to include thousands of items, mainly from the Gulf, and his museum has become something of an institution; two or three groups from schools and universities across the UAE visit every week.
"I built this because I want to teach students about our lives more than 50 or 60 years ago," says Lt Darwish.
"I started with a small thing and every year it's grown up to this time. In the beginning I faced some difficulties but a lot of people helped me collect these items."
Once again, his museum is bursting at the seams: "I want to do more but I don't have a place."
His most prized items are two family heirlooms - a hand-painted 300-year-old Quran given to him by his father, and his grandmother's meshana, a stone slab used for grinding kohl for eyeliner.
Although the objects earn their place in the museum because they have been used by earlier generations, many are still in use, such as rifles and a Shehhi drum, still used at wedding ceremonies. Others, such as coffee pots and clay incense burners, are identical to those in use today and represent, he says, not an end to history but its continuity.
Lt Darwish does not restrict his collection to the UAE. While some heirlooms are of great direct relevance to local heritage, there are many common items from everyday life that came to the region from abroad; these include a dozen different types of clothes irons and a collection of women's shoes from various countries.
The fact that many of his curios are collected from around the world, says Lt Darwish, is a recognition of the history of the UAE, for centuries at the crossroads of trade between Europe, India and the Far East.
But the most vivid displays are those illuminated by Lt Darwish's own memories.
He remembers watching his father build khaimah and areesh houses; he remembers how his mother used the clay pots to store water and food and he remembers sleeping with his family on a raised platform made of palm and wood, identical to the one in his museum, because there was no air-conditioning in their home.
And the museum remains part of his life today; he keeps a coffee pot and cups ready for visitors there, and entertains friends daily.
Lt Darwish's respect for the past is a shared by Aisha Ahmad and her husband, Ahmad Qaidouh.
Mrs Ahmad's collection began with a few items she had kept in an old wooden chest. Now, it is so large that it is displayed in three buildings: two stone makhzan houses and a palm khaimah.
The largest makhzan serves as both majlis and museum. Inside, metre-high pots from Wadi Bih and the island of Lima in Musandam are stacked beside blackened pots and clay incense burners.
Piles of palm handicrafts line the wall: chicken baskets, prayer mats, fans, a broom. "Before, things were made from palm," says Mrs Ahmad.
She knows each item intimately. Turning to a set of pots, she speaks of their original uses: "For rice from India, for flour and dates from the mountains. This is for rice, harees and curry. It's black because they've been used many years. This is for frying coffee."
On another shelf, she has a collection of pottery that has been in her husband's family for more than 200 years. "From the old family, he made it for his wife when they got married," she says, holding up a small clay jar used to store perfume.
Along the wall, she shows off tin jars used for honey and dates. "Honey, our family collected it," she says, proudly.
On the opposite wall, her husband has hung 16 rifles and nine swords alongside a shelf that holds a collection of medicine bottles from Saudi Arabia. Some people, she says, are willing to part with old rifles because they are no longer used.
"They tell us, it's finished. Before, it was a shame for a man to go anywhere without carrying this. Everybody laughed when he carried nothing."
Today, rifles appear only at special ceremonies. "At weddings, everybody's shooting when they're happy," says Mrs Ahmad. Her husband draws attention to the swords.
"There are many kinds," he says. He shows the dull edges of one sword: "That's for dancing. This," he says, unsheathing a gleaming doubled-edged weapon, "is for killing."
On another wall are photographs of Mr Qaidouh's family home in the mountains. "This is my house 35 years ago," he says, pointing to a small stone building. "We came for hot days here. But until I was big we'd go and come. Our goats were there."
There is also a prized photograph of Sheikh Zayed shaking hands with Mr Qaidouh's grandfather. In the picture, his grandfather is wearing one of the knives on display.
She sees the museum as an important bridge to the past, which she fears could be forgotten with the rapid development of the UAE.
"Everything's changed, people have changed," she says. "Now everybody wants to make money. They don't want to lose money on old things, but Sheikh Zayed said people who don't remember their past have no future."
It was these very words that inspired Brig Saeed Laha to open his personal museum in 2004.
In the village of Galileh, nestling between the Gulf and the Hajjar mountains, the Zayed Heritage Village is one of the largest private museums in the UAE.
"I decided to teach our people how was our life before Sheikh Zayed took over, how we are living in this country," says Brig Laha. "We were a very poor country. We used to work everywhere, Saudi Arabia and Oman, everywhere, looking for food. But when Sheikh Zayed took over the life changed."
Brig Laha, 50, got the idea for the museum while studying at England's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Visiting some friends from the academy, he was intrigued by rooms devoted to family history.
"I started collecting from everywhere. I started to build more places for everything and still I have some more but there is no space for it."
Brig Laha restricts his collection to items from the UAE. On his farm he has built an areesh, a khaimah, a stone deheriz house, a half-underground house built from rocks and sidar wood called a gifiel, and a siplah, a three-sided room made from palm fronds.
The museum also features a lecture hall, with a display of 40 rifles and 40 swords, a room that holds hundreds of pieces of Bedouin jewellery from Oman and the UAE, and a library with more than 5,000 books in Arabic and English. There are also an estimated 500 photocopies of letters between the British government and the rulers of the Trucial states between 1895 and 1955, which he collected from the Commonwealth Club on a visit to London in 1987. Brig Laha also has photocopies of letters from Ahmad bin Majid, the 15th-century explorer, that a friend brought from archives in Moscow.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the collection is a 6,000-year-old tomb, discovered on his land, which contains 53 bodies, excavated by a team of German archaeologists. For students and tourists alike, the museum village brings UAE history to life.
"The village is responsible for events in many schools, not only in RAK but also in Fujairah," says Nour Dhanhani, a high school biology teacher from Fujairah. "Last year we went to the village a lot of times. "Today students can find everything they want. Our parents and grandfathers were poor and their lives were not as easy as our lives today, and our children must remember this." Brig Laha says he will spare no expense to preserve the past; he estimates that he has invested more than Dh3 million (US$817,000) in the museum.
"When you love something, close your eyes and open your wallet," he says, laughing. "My father used to all the time say think about your background, think about your history, think about who you are, think about your country. All the time he said you are nothing without land, without ground, without your country. Your country is your house. Your government is your father and mother. Take care of them.
"We tell our children and our people they should take care of this because they haven't another place."
azacharias@thenational.ae

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