Voices from the past come to life

A class that offers a new way to study the nation's history is proving a big hit at Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed University

Students listen intently during a women's history class at Zayed University.
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It is a Tuesday afternoon at Zayed University's new Khalifa campus and at least 50 students are packed into a classroom that normally holds half that number. They have come to learn about the their country's past - but not one that is documented in any history books.
During the next hour, these young women will be taught how to unearth the unwritten stories, those locked in the memories of an older generation whose knowledge is a living archive that can reach back generations.
Their enthusiasm for the task shows in the intensity directed at the speaker, an expert from Abu Dhabi's National Centre for Documentation and Research. All eyes are fixed to the front. Not a sound is heard.
"The classrooms usually take between 20 to 25 girls but they keep coming in even after the classes are officially closed," says Dr Jane Bristol-Rhys, the director and teacher of the programme. "And you know, I can't say no to them.
"We are not simply teaching history and cataloguing heritage artefacts - we give students the intellectual tools with which to interpret and enrich both," she adds. "Heritage is defined and valued by each successive generation and so it is crucial that Emiratis are equipped to manage their cultural heritage."
The topic today is "recording oral history", a project that will help the students develop techniques for interviewing and recording the memories of family members.
Dr Bristol-Rhys, the Associate Professor of Anthropology, says that in the past, students questioned the way history was taught. She recalls being asked: "Is it the old way of reading big books and boring historical documents?" Her reply? "We say it is fun."
Addressing the students is Maitha Salman Al Zaabi, from the oral history and genealogical studies section of the National Centre for Documentation and Research (NCDR) in Abu Dhabi. Her task is to help the young women communicate with their elders, from understanding the old Emirati-accented Arabic to learning the significance of gestures and phrases.
She defines oral history as "filling in the gaps of life and the details we have recorded in the archives".
As a national archive, the centre's main objective is to preserve the UAE's tangible and intangible heritage, both for present-day researchers and future generations.
One way it does this is by interviewing what the centre calls "living treasures" and archiving those records to international standards.
So far Ms Al Zaabi and her team have interviewed more than 370 people from across all seven Emirates. "You never take any person for granted," she advises. "We interview every person who lived in our society from all different classes, all nationalities and locales."
The location of the interview is important, she says. It should be quiet. "Get to know not just the subjects but those who know them. Ask what they are best known for, what people used to call them."
When it comes to recording, she says: "Let them say their names because sometimes the names in passports are different to what people call them."
These details, such as the first name, family and tribe, can be "a big thing among locals", so the interviewer should be sensitive. Care should be taken to observe the proper gestures and traditions before opening a conversation.
"It is an insult to them if you don't 'tetfawal' - have a meal, or at least some fruit or coffee, with them before starting," adds Ms Al Zaabi.
When listening to old people talk, she says, the stories can be so fascinating that "you don't notice the time". But interviewers must be careful not to exhaust their interviewees. "They reach to a point that they can't focus and get tired."
In addition to asking for family photographs, documents and other objects, make a note of words and phrases that have passed from common use, she adds. And remember that accents in Ajman are different from those in Sharjah or Abu Dhabi, as are those who live in the desert compared with those along the coast.
Some of the students voice concerns. One mentions that old people often prefer to keep things to themselves, or at least share stories only with those they trust. That is the point, says Ms Al Zaabi.
"To enter their houses and take their words - it is a huge bond that comes out of trust. We give them that trust, and they give us theirs," she explains. And if some story or information is offered off the record "it always stays off record".
One old man, for example, asked that his words only be made public after five years had passed, a request that the centre respected.
Next to speak to the students is Dr Aisha Bilkhair Abdullah, the director of research and knowledge services at the NCDR.
Past generations have a long tradition of collecting oral histories, she tells the students, passing down stories over many years. It is a big responsibility: "They are witness and a big part of history," she adds.
When conducting interviews, she says, students should avoid interrupting. "When you start triggering something in their memories leave them to go on." And be ready to be surprised, she says. "Something they might say could change your perspective of who you are."
Dr Abdullah finishes with: "There is a meaning behind everything, just like how dolphins communicate." The students laugh.
Afterwards, the students talk about the lecture and the course. They talk about the knowledge they have gained about their country and of going on field trips to museums and galleries, including an archaeology class in Ras Al Khaimah.
Mariam Al Shekaily, a third-year student in the Emirati studies programme, said of the lecture: "It went beyond our expectations."
Asked if she had any regrets about studying history, Aysha Al Junaibi replies: "I would have regretted it if I had not taken it."
Like many of the students, Miss Al Junaibi singles out a class on the legacy of Sheikh Zayed as one of the highlights of the course. "We know a lot of Sheikh Zayed but the details amaze us. Seeing, for example, his handwriting in one of the old documents meant so much to us.
"Those who came before us - all nationalities and locals who lived in the old days - gave us a good base. However, it is up to us Emiratis to carry on. It is a national responsibility to our history and show proudly what Sheikh Zayed accomplished."
Moza Hussain Al Ghafli was one of the first to graduate from the course. "It is our duty to do this," she says. "To fill all the gaps in everyone's family and every elder that we can reach."