Beacons of Culture Illuminate the Sky of Abu Dhabi

Beacons of Culture Illuminate the Sky of Abu Dhabi

A cultural triangle, whose three sides complete each other in its aims, so that its area forms a brilliant picture of culture in Abu Dhabi, the Zayed Center for the Heritage and History so that we do not throw stones at our past, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research to examine questions with strategic dimensions and to look towards the future, and the Cultural Academy as an eye to peruse the lines of the past and others which gaze towards the future.

A model integration in Abu Dhabi: human efforts leave their fingerprints in every inch of this city, which is rising up with will and determination to draw the features of a new renaissance and the signposts of a modern city. From its airport more than thirty kilometers away to the city center, green trees and colored flowers accompanied us on both sides of the road. This greenery with its flowers soon disperses in the middle of the city into the many parks and the centers of roundabouts at street intersections and beside tall modern buildings which reflect their different colors, usually the colors of their glass which covers most of their facades in imitation of their counterparts in cities of the West.

A different climate: May with its heat and humidity does not give one the chance to walk around on foot, except inside the luxurious shopping centers. I contented myself with looking at the building boom, the lean, broad streets, the luxuriant parks, the beautiful beach and the modern buildings, leaving aside the considerations of the miraculous development of the place, and directing myself towards the person who had made these impressions, the person who lived in this city. It was natural that the building of the place should be preceded by the building of human beings. Then the two courses of development, of people and place, followed one another. As long as culture is the backbone in building people, and since the main formative elements of culture are literature, thought and art and each one of these elements leads to several other branches which together form the essence of cultural life in society, one must visit the institutions or organizations concerned with cultural activity.

The Cultural Academy is the first of these places to visit. It is a public cultural organization and also a palace of civilization. Basically it fulfills a leading role in spreading culture, enriching thought, encouraging the fine arts and scientific inventions, establishing national cultures and promoting them. I hear a great deal about its leading role, so I headed for it, but like someone who expects to visit a rather massive traditional cultural center.

The car turned round the building of the fort, whose style of architecture is Islamic, a snow-white building surrounded on most sides by trees, giving an onlooker an opportunity to enjoy the architecture. The fort palace has a great status in the minds of people of the Emirates. It is the most ancient building on the island of Abu Dhabi that is still standing. The palace and its fortifications were built of coral rocks, gypsum and palm branches, and the affairs of government used to be conducted from there until 1966.

Next to the fort rises the building of the Cultural Academy, which is also in Islamic architectural style. I used to think that a few short hours would be enough to comprehend everything in the Academy, but it was not as I expected. Every day the Academy has more than one new cultural activity. I smiled doubtingly when among the activities I read an advertisement for a chocolate exhibition held by the Swiss Embassy in one of the galleries of the Academy. I tried hard to connect culture with chocolate but did not succeed, and eagerly awaited the opening of that exhibition. Before I accompany you there, we will make a tour all around the Academy.

Perhaps the thing that most attracted me to that Academy was those who work in it. Each one is proud of his work and what he is giving to the Academy. A harmonious symphony each one of whose musicians plays his part in it with commitment. But who is their conductor? From his office we set out on our tour after he had received us with a smiling face, with great modesty and with words flowing with respect for others and gratitude for their kindness. Khalfan A-Mahiri, Director of Culture and Arts, spoke to us at length about the recently-published book I Was a Witness, whose author had been an editor in Al-Arabi magazine during its early days. In the course of his conversation, Al-Mahiri emphasized the role of Al-Arabi in highlighting the Arab countries, as they rise up liberated and try to build themselves, and this has helped the process of building.

The Academy is a cultural oasis that does not boast of its beauty as much as it rejoices in its vitality. It is full of life at all hours of the day. People s breath warms every corner. In the beautiful evenings which we spent there, the joy and gentle laughter of children filled the Children s Center, which is the corner allocated to those under twelve years old. It contains several sections, for computers, drawing, calligraphy, music, ballet and chess. Computers, music and ballet? I said in astonishment to Mrs. Zulaikha Al-Hausani, Director of the Center. But what banished my astonishment was the ballet movements to which we were treated by little girls who were able to make their bodies perform them in charming unison, and the movements of small fingers on the keys of organs.

Specialist courses for children are intensified in summer. The children s theater also is active, through what the children present with their counterparts who are invited by the country.

Although the Children s Center was opened in January 1986, it has borne its fruits in the development of the talents and creativity of children, and in developing their sense of patriotism. Through the opportunities which the Center gives them, it fulfills a role that is complementary to the school, and offers children what they do not obtain there.

Journalists but Children

The experiment of Al-Anoud may be one of the most notable unusual experiments in the Children s Center. They told me that a press interview would be conducted with the team from Al-Arabi magazine. After a few minutes they accompanied us to a place where we were greeted with a welcoming smile by girls, the oldest of whom was no more than thirteen, and with kind words by their supervisor. They said that Al-Anoud magazine would be conducting the interview, and Al-Anoud is a magazine which the children publish in full under supervision which never amounts to intervention by the adult supervisor. They showed us the eight issues of the magazine which had been published over more than four years. In fact the character of Al-Anoud was childish, but a cultured, refined childhood containing the seeds of a sense of responsibility towards the material and towards journalistic work which would reach other people. the reason for this childish character is that all the members of the editorial staff of the magazine are children who believe in their talent in spite of their young age. The Center took them by the hand in order to make their dreams come true. Among them are those who like writing and drawing, and lovers of photography. My only criticism of Al-Anoud is that it is not published regularly, as regularity would be a real encouragement to the children who write in it, if they knew that an issue would be published at a specific time with their articles in it. The Academy was not only an attraction for children, but also for other age groups. It teaches many spoken languages, like Persian, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and German, and the specialist TOEFL program. The Academy has added to that by teaching non-verbal languages of expression, which have attracted ladies of different ages from their homes to learn design engineering. It also opened courses in cinema filming, and all fields. The options highlighted the skills of those who were committed and those who excelled.

More than an Encyclopedia

Al-Anoud and the spoken languages or the languages of expression were not the only main unusual experiments or pioneering initiatives which are credited to the Academy. They are minor compared with other new initiatives like the Audio Book and the Encyclopedia of Poetry.

The Audio Book is a great project complete in itself, in spite of its simplicity. It is the first in our Arab world, and the second in the world after the BBC experiment. This cassette has managed to remove the dust from books to make them our companions in everything we do, in an age which is witnessing massive technological development and a sad decline in reading, which has become one of our many crises in the Arab world. This experiment begins with a selection of the best chapters from the most useful famous books. The Academy is working to record the audio books which it has completed, more than seventy of them, on compact discs.

Both the Audio Book and the Encyclopedia of Poetry are available to Internet browsers who visit the Academy s website. This is affirmed by Mundhir Al-Akili, the supervisor of the Encyclopedia of Poetry, a massive achievement which is considered a qualitative leap forward for the Academy. How could it not be, when the number of verses of poetry collected in the encyclopedia comes to more than two million? More than that, they are explained and scanned metrically, indeed heard also. With its contents it takes you back to the poets of the pre-Islamic era, and then to the poets of modern times, but not the poets of yesterday and today, since the encyclopedia has three criteria which regulate it. It deals with rhymed and scanned poetry written in correct literary language by a poet who went to meet his Maker more than fifty years ago. This lessens the trouble of searching for poets and asking his permission or the permission of his heirs.

Our effort doubled after we had finished with the poems of the famous ones, and we began the search for the others, the supervisor of the project says. The trouble of searching for poets who had been forgotten or whose writings had been concealed on purpose for one reason or another takes several months. Hence the new edition contains a great deal of rare poetry.

The encyclopedia aims at containing five million verses of poetry. The incentive for such a work is the Internet, which is short of Arabic material compared with other languages. Loading the encyclopedia and its explanatory texts, together with the books attached to it, like the commentaries on Al-Mutanabbi and the Mu allaqat (the seven most famous pre-Islamic Arabic poems), dictionaries and reference works totaling more than 400,000 pages on a compact disc had only one aim: for it to reach the Arab countries in which the Internet service is not completely available, or is not available at all. Since it is simple to use, researchers find in it what they do not obtain within books or papers in the same amount of time. One thing that has enriched the encyclopedia, particularly in its first editions, is the library of the Academy which contains more than 180,000 anthologies of Arabic poetry. What is the story of this library?

Words cannot do justice to the story of this library, one has to have numbers. The language of numbers is sometimes more explicit, and usually more accurate.

Omar Al-Hadi, the person in charge of the reading room, accompanied us on a tour through the National Library in the Academy, to show us that it contains 400,000 Arabic titles and 30,000 foreign titles in 1,200,000 electronically catalogued volumes. This number is constantly increasing. There are 240 visitors a day to the library, and on days when there are cultural activities the number increases to 400 visitors a day. The library contains a collection of rare books in old editions. These old editions used to be part of the library of Falih Ibn Nasir Al Thani, and were donated to the National Library in the Academy. The rare books also include some which are forbidden to be read except by researchers according to certain procedures, and a list of what was published about the Arabian Gulf and its states before the 1950s. The library offers its services to readers through the information section and secluded research rooms, and a visitor or researcher is directed towards what he wants. There are ten of these research rooms, and two researchers take turns with each one by agreement between them. In the library there are halls devoted to a particular aspect of books and reference sources, like the Gulf Hall, the Periodicals Hall and the Children s Library. The Academy intends to expand the latter and equip it with audio-visual aids in addition to the books, illustrated stories and periodicals it contains. On the other hand, the National Library is concerned with publication, and one aspect of its publications is on the subject of research into manuscripts. There is a special section for manuscripts and photocopies of them, which contains more than 4,000 original manuscripts and 50,000 photocopies of manuscripts of which it was not possible to obtain original copies. The collection and publication of manuscripts may in itself constitute an immense wealth of knowledge, in the words of the Senior Researcher of the Manuscripts Section Bassam Baroud. Among these manuscripts are nearly fifty manuscripts of the Holy Quran in various types of script like Naskh, Maghribi and Farsi. The oldest manuscript in the Academy is entitled Majalis fil-Tasawwuf (Sessions in Sufi Mysticism) and was copied in 1277 AD. It is a collection of essays by an anonymous author on preaching and guidance.

Publication in the Academy, whether of manuscripts or anything else, has its specific mechanism which begins with receiving the research (a project for a book), and then sending it to the judges. When the Academy has made certain that it is suitable for publication, it contracts with the author, buys the right of publication for six years and takes the necessary steps to print the book. The Academy has published more than 200 books.

The National Archive also is attached to the Academy, in a separate building. This archive is concerned with documentary information produced by the work of government and local departments, as these contain information which reflects an original image of the activities of the most important active forces in society. They are useful for scholarly research. These documents are unique, and so are preserved and stored with great care, and the most suitable place is chosen for them in terms of the right temperature and safety from bacteria. The full capability of computers is used for them. The National Archive relieves ministries and government departments of the problem of storing files. It is a member of the International Council on Archives.

Arts in Chocolate

One thing which makes the Academy like a constantly busy beehive is these unending activities. When we arrived workers were putting up notices on the walls. It was the exhibition of local plastic artists, including Nawal Al-Ameri, the Supervisor of the Academy s Free Studio, which was crammed with wonderful artistic works, not only in terms of all types of paintings. It contains several sections, one for sculpture, another for painting on silk, others for painting on glass or ceramics, and there is an Arabic calligraphy section. The Studio offers its visitors a place and supervisors in every field. This artistic side brings me back to the chocolate exhibition which had been opened with large attendance by important personalities and members of the diplomatic corps in the country. I could hardly believe what I saw: it was real chocolate, but it was not for eating in that form and in that place. It was wonderful creations sculptured from chocolate with great artistic skill. Most of these creations depicted the Swiss environment with its nature, the most notable things in its industry and some of its traditions.

Why don t we present our environment in sculptures from dates? I asked His Excellency the Kuwaiti Ambassador. Isn t our country the land of palm trees? He replied smiling, with a meaningful sentence, And is it possible and guaranteed that it wouldn t be touched if we wrote that on it?

Before saying goodbye to the Academy, the crowning touch was with its Secretary-General, the man with pioneer cultural initiatives, the poet Muhammad Ahmad Al-Suwaidi, who spoke to us about the role of the Academy in fulfilling its cultural mission both locally and in the Arab world. He explained that when the Academy was founded, it used to serve a limited small area in Abu Dhabi, and was not concerned with more than that. Lectures, poetry evenings, seminars and exhibitions used to be held gradually, they did not develop all at one go.

The Iraqi forces invasion of Kuwait was a turning-point in cultural work. Would the fate of a cultural center like the Academy be in this limited region, Arab crises and successive disasters? We began to think that we must direct ourselves towards the Arabs and the Academy s message must be to them, wherever they may be. Consequently it must also go beyond the borders of the Arab world to the Arabs in all countries of the world. The thinking was about strategic projects like publishing more books. The idea of the Audio Book was born and launched, because it was one of the remaining works which can reach every part of the world. The Academy went over to electronic publishing. The Encyclopedia of Poetry was established, which includes about 2,300,000 verses of poetry by the most important and prominent Arab poets.

The Golden Network

I asked him about Al-Warraq website which was established on the Internet. It was born in the Academy and then separated from it. It now contains hundreds of thousands of pages of Arab cultural heritage available to Internet surfers. Why did Al-Suwaidi adopt this website, and what are his other projects?

The poet Al-Suwaidi smiled and shook his head. My personal concern has gone beyond the borders of the cultural establishment to setting up special projects. I set up the Warraq project in another leap forward from the Encyclopedia of Poetry to books on the Arab heritage. The latest of my projects is the Golden Network. It is a bigger project than Al-Warraq, and was set up in Cambridge two years ago. The Golden Network is a program or databank which serves the educational and cultural sectors. It follows the movement of the growth of cities since the beginning of history, the growth of trade routes between them, the routes of explorers all over the world. It starts from 4000 BC and extends to 1900 AD, how routes and cities grew up, and who the explorers were who traveled to them. This project will be presented in Arabic and English. It will be directed at five age groups: children, primary and preparatory school pupils, university students and researchers. In a few months the website will be ready, as the research and academic work on it is going on in Cambridge and the technical work in the Emirates. With regard to Al-Warraq, at some moment you feel that there is a specific idea and you must take a decision either to be or not to be. When I felt that Al-Warraq needed financial backing not available to our establishment with its numerous responsibilities, I decided to push ahead with this experiment. Instead of there being one programmer, we brought twenty programmers, a designer and a computer engineer. You may know that electronic publishing is completely different from publishing on paper and the Audio Book. The Internet is a world which appeared in the United States, and seven years after it spread there came to be harsh conditions for members of the club. Most of the Arabic websites are amateur sites, and the serious Arabic sites are few. One of these is the Warraq site. It is supervised by the poet Nuri Al-Jarrah. Money must be spent on the Arabic sites, so that they do not remain weak. They must be supported with quality protection by a staff of professionals and programmers. The Arabs lived through a period during which they were able to export knowledge to others, but their hesitation in this field means that the problem is in the Arabs themselves. Therefore I chose to enter this arena. Since I don t want my two projects (Al-Warraq and the Golden Network) to be in the shadow of an individual, I arranged for quarters from the Arab world to bear responsibility for them, but after ensuring that they had reached the stage of success. We set up a project outside the government establishment which we called Exploring the Horizons. It is close to Al-Arabi magazine, and is also supervised by the poet Nuri Al-Jarrah. This project attempts to accomplish a hundred Arab journeys to the world. The Arabs used to be pioneers in this field, and I encourage this interest and support undertaking new journeys.

Regarding the future of the Cultural Academy, that pioneer cultural organization in the Emirates whose educational radiation extends to the east and west of the Arab world, the poet Al-Suwaidi says, the Academy has become a cultural lung in Abu Dhabi, and has become a meeting-place for Arabs in its website. We are going ahead in the works which have proven their success, and in inventing other activities. We are concerned with developing our experience, and will continue to search for what is useful.

I don t deny that my work is confined to supervision only. I leave the administrative practical side to the second rank, if I may use that expression. I am continuing my attempts for cultural projects with quarters from the Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

Another Source for Culture

While the Academy s eyes are open to the past and present with their literature and their human sciences, discussion of highly sensitive political questions which go with this age and look ahead to the future in its strategic dimensions has been a matter of concern to the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research since it was founded in March 1994. It was our second stop, where we did not remain for more than two hours. Every step there was considered, and every conversation measured. The features of seriousness were clear on the faces, indeed on the walls and doors too. A private world, without sounds, and no move is made by anyone there, although it is divided between more than ten buildings close to each other (residential villas). More than 250 books and studies in various fields have been produced by this world, 160 diverse practical activities, daily bulletins which monitor and analyze local, Arab and international events, providing a clear vision to decision-makers and serving current and future policies of the state on the basis of reliable information and accurate statistics provided by the database of the Center, which is continually being developed and modernized.

Brief words of welcome and faces that do not betray anything, completely neutral. Need I spend more time in description? No, I will not, I will begin with a knock from the hand of Mr. Abdullah Al-Shaiba, Head of the Public Relations Section, indicating the beginning of the explanation which lasted approximately twenty minutes, and in which the position of the Center, its structure, contributions and aspirations were summarized. It might be a mistake for me to enumerate the aims of the Center, when I see them being achieved through the activities which it has organized, its specialist studies, its conferences, seminars and lectures, the last of which was on American Foreign Policy towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Al-Shaiba invited us to attend it, but its time coincided with the last few hours of our visit to the country.

In addition to the Center s interest in following up new political, social, economic and military developments locally and internationally and preparing strategic researches and studies and reports, it also considers the preparation and training of research staff one of its most important aims. The Staff Training Section contains the most important halls and is equipped with computers with sound equipment attached to an internal network, which enables a lecturer to view and control trainees computers. Training in this section is confined to UAE staff working in the Center who have higher academic degrees, with the aim of improving their research and scholastic skills in conformity with the specializations and sensitivity of the Center. Although this section was established the year before last, it arranges specialist training courses for local organizations and institutions. Graduates are awarded a Scientific Research Diploma. There are negotiations with the Ministry of Higher Education for recognition of the diploma. Every batch consists of no more than twelve trained graduates. If the number is more than that, the trainees are divided into two batches.

Springs and Tributaries

The Center carries out its functions and its work through three sectors: the Administrative Affairs Sector, the Social Service Sector and the Scientific Research Sector. The latter is concerned with directing strategic studies and economic and social studies and managing information. It was decided that we should visit the library in the Information Department. As we went up the stairs our attention was drawn to the pictures of important visitors with those who greeted them, like the Syrian President Dr. Bashar Al-Asad, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and others. We were accompanied to the library by Ayesha Kutbi, who gave us a verbal report on the Center with noticeable spontaneity. She was also in the same state when she acquainted us with the UAE Federation Library which was founded with the Center and includes more than 62,000 periodicals and 65,000 titles in tens of thousands of books and specialist periodicals. It also contains the basic sources of information in the political, economic and social fields as well as the most up-to-date Arab and international references and sources and scientific and specialist periodicals.

The work of the Library in general is part of that of the Information Management Section, which collects and stores information to be ready to respond quickly to provide information and sources used in accordance with plans for data collection worldwide. The most important sources for collecting information are the Internet and compact discs. There are more than 700 compact discs in the Center containing data coming from specialist agencies, which send their data electronically. Discs of encyclopedias arrive continually whenever something new is added to them. Databases, some of which are public, collect from published reports and some from specialist agencies. In the Library there are as many as 1,600 British documents, which in general are concentrated on the history of the Arabian Gulf, more than 600 university theses in Arabic and English, 2,500 maps and many rare books published long ago. It is also concerned with the Arabian Gulf. All that makes the Library an unquestionable archive for documentation that is indispensable for researchers. Handling the contents of the Library is made easy by the fact that computers have been introduced in its various sections.

Types of Contribution

In the framework of the Center achieving its aims of spreading scientific culture in various matters, it has adopted a strategy of publishing books which contain research papers for conferences and are published in Arabic and English. An example of this is the book Iran and the Gulf: a Search for Stability by Dr. Jamal Al-Suwaidi, the Director of the Center. This book has been adopted as part of the syllabus in one of the universities. The Center also publishes books prepared by its authors in Arabic and books translated into Arabic. Usually these are books on important subjects which have made a great impression in cultural circles when they were published in their original language.

The Center also published specialist and valuable scientific series as international studies. They increase the activation of cultural interaction and scientific co-operation. These studies are international research papers translated into Arabic. They include Islamic Values, Western Values and Globalization: Views and Questions, Strategic Studies which are concerned with strategic issues, and the two Emirates series of lectures in Arabic and English.

The burdens of publication in the Center are always borne by the Social Service Sector, which in addition to that manages conferences, distribution and exhibitions.

The Social Service Sector is responsible for managing public relations and information. The latter is a matter of great sensitivity, not only because of the successive major events which our world is witnessing, but it also acquires sensitivity from the public which receives it, most of which are decision-makers.

We entered the Media Monitoring Section with our friend Al-Shaiba. A striking thing about those in charge of the work in this Center is that they are all serious young men, or at least those whom I came to know and who accompanied me during my visit to the Center. In the Media Monitoring Section there are eighteen television screens, which can receive 280 television stations. They are concerned with a limited number of these, the most notable of which are Abu Dhabi, Qatar s Al-Jazira, CNN and the BBC. This does not mean in any way that they are not interested in the other stations. The Center also follows local and international news through the most important news agencies, of which it relies on the Emirates News Agency (WAM), AFP, Reuter and Associated Press. There is most interest in urgent news which affects the course of events. This section through its work which continues round the clock and also includes Internet websites with their pages from newspapers published outside the country provides the sections concerned in the Center directly with accurate follow-up of everything that happens, or through media publications like the 20-page daily bulletin of news of the hour, and through a special bulletin which reaches certain specific decision-making authorities. There are more than one thousand special studies which have been presented to decision-makers in the country. Before that, the quarterly magazine Afaq Al-Mustaqbal used to be published by the Center among its media publications.

Through this perseverance in the continuous and accurate search for information with strategic implications which influences cultural circles, and constant follow-up of the courses of events which have great effect on the whole world and the Arab countries in particular, and analyses so that the results of them will be clarified to those in charge, the Center is fulfilling its mission which its President His Highness Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Zayed formulated in his statements that the establishment of the Center is a prominent indication of the development of scientific research and the adoption of objective methods in dealing with new developments, drawing up policies and taking decisions.

In actual fact, it cannot be said that housing the Center in residential villas is practical, even if these villas are next or close to each other, and linked with telephones and the Internet. Accordingly those in charge of the Center have worked to construct an imposing building appropriate to the status of the Center.

Until the Picture is Completed

Cultural establishments in the Emirates are not single and uniform in their capabilities and potentials, or in their activities and contributions. They are also not equal in what they have achieved and not achieved in reality, although they are all contributing to encouraging cultural activity. But the type and size of the contributions varies from one establishment to another.

The Zayed Center for Heritage and History in Al-Ain is run by the Emirates Heritage Club, the third side of the cultural triangle whose area we are trying to cover.

The road to Al-Ain is more than 150 kilometres long. In spite of the great heat and humidity, trees and green plants accompany travelers all along the road.

The city of Al-Ain welcomes us with a splendor which is completely different from what we were used to in Abu Dhabi, dozens of gardens distributed in different parts of it, and its buildings were not tall. We arrived at the hotel shortly before the Friday prayers.

Our Heritage in New Clothes

On the morning of the next day we wended our way towards the Zayed Center for Heritage and History, the Center which shoulders the responsibility for preserving the heritage of their fathers and grandfathers. This in itself is a true indication of the civilization of society in the Emirates. With a smiling face we were welcomed by khalifa Al-Zahiri in front of the front door. We went up to the second floor to meet Dr. Fatima Al-Mahiri in the Research Activities Section, the first official step in our journey inside the Center. She freed her hands from the papers on which she was working and informed us that she was engaged in a project aimed at collecting and documenting folk tales. She was preparing a working group of trained women researchers from the Emirates and imparting them some expertise in collecting and documentation. I asked her what the occasion was for this project, and why folk tales in the local heritage. This is not the first project, she answered. The Center had accustomed the members of society to an annual project whose roots lie in the depths of the heritage. We have accomplished several projects, like the training course on library sciences one time, and another in the sphere of handicraft, artistic and other skills. In this practical aspect the Center involves citizens in finding facts about history and the heritage and documenting them. This develops their sense of the importance of the heritage in our past and present, and of the need to preserve it. This participation is on the basis that teaching someone to fish is better than giving them a meal of fish. She smiled as she said, Although we give the meal continuously through other research activities in the Center, which deal with history and the national heritage in the United Arab Emirates and the documentation of the folk heritage also.

What about your researches?

My latest researches, Dr. Fatima said, are about the aflaj irrigation system which is distributed in come areas in the northern Emirates. Al-Ain knew more than anywhere else of irrigation by this system, and there are famous aflaj in it like Falaj Al-Saruj and Falaj Al-Dawudi. She expounded at length on the aflaj and their role in the greenness of large parts of the country. What I learnt was that the researcher found a difference between the water of two aflaj, and investigated the secret of this difference by analyzing the water in a laboratory and by studying the nature of the land and the soil from which the two types originated.

In a friendly manner Dr. Muhammad Hasan Al-Nabuda, Director of the Center, accompanied us to his office to describe to us the activities of the Center since its foundation in 1998. On the sidelines of the opening, the First Gulf Oral History Meeting was held. Since its opening, it has been concerned with spreading Arab and Islamic culture and local culture as a part of our Arab culture. It has been eager to arrange conferences and meetings. The Center had an annual tradition of assembling the largest possible cross-section of intellectuals who are interested in the heritage and history of the region in a meeting at which various researches and studies are discussed. On the sidelines of the main meeting there are side meetings, which enrich the main issues of the meeting. Four international conferences have been held, in addition to hosting the Seventh Seminar on the History of Arab Sciences among the Arabs. The Center intends to hold a special conference on antiquities in the United Arab Emirates, in response to what is being done by the missions which have come to the region, discovered many antiquities and published about them abroad in foreign languages. There is an indication from His Highness Sheikh Sultan Ibn Zayed, the President of the Center, that an international conference on antiquities in the Emirates will be held annually

The Heritage Is Reborn

The publications of the Center are its most notable contributions. The list of its publications is increasing and contains almost sixty titles. Some titles are made up of more than one part. Most of these titles are researches on historical and heritage subjects, which have their status among researchers, in the development of societies and among those interested. Therefore libraries in all parts of the Arab world country seize them eagerly. Some of them are titles with literary echoes in our history, and some are considered authoritative reference works in history and geography like Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ihktiraq al-Afaq by Al-Idrisi, the Anthology of Imru l-Qays and its annexes in three parts, Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar, Aswat fi l-Fann wa l-Shi r wa l-Hayat by Muayyad Al-Shaibani and other books which deal with the local or regional heritage, whether in the field of civilization or education or in the maritime heritage.

I asked about the mechanism of publishing and what the Center adds in cultural terms to the city of Al-Ain, and hence to the Emirates. The publications are primarily concerned with researches that are presented to conferences, the Director of the Center said. Only those researches are published in which scholarly methodology is strictly applied, and researches related to the society of the Emirates and its particular heritage are published after they have been examined and it is known how suitable they are. Attention has also been given to rare manuscripts, and now we are in the process of publishing Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar, as a valuable encyclopedia and one of the most important sources in the Arab and Islamic heritage which has not seen the light for a long time. Only nine volumes of it have been published, and it is nearly 29 volumes. If we want to compare this encyclopedia with others, it is comparable to Taj al-Arus which fraternal Kuwait published recently.

The Center has its cultural vessels, from which researchers drink and on which the Center depends. Foremost of these is the library, which contains sources and scholarly reference works related to the heritage and history of the region, together with a huge quantity of periodicals, most of which are old and have ceased publication, and their issues have disappeared. This may be an advantage which researchers have experienced in the Zayed Center for Heritage and History in the city of Al-Ain.

As well as the library, the Center has a treasure store of important Arab and Islamic manuscripts containing more than 400 manuscripts on the religious sciences, literature and history, and more than 200 manuscripts copied on microfilm. These manuscripts are available to researchers, said Muhammad Fatih Zaghl, who is in charge of publication, and some of them are being investigated, like Tuhfat al-Ajai ib. The manuscript Taghrid al-Andalib ala Ghusn al-Andalus al-Ratib has been prepared for dispatch also to a researcher to investigate it.

The library and the store of manuscripts support one of the important resources, namely the archive of documents. The Center has given great attention to these documents, because of their importance in writing historical research. Accordingly the Center has published three books, one of which contains the Ottoman documents concerned with the history of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. The second deals with the same subject, but in Egyptian documents, and the third in British documents. Each one of these books includes the document, its number, the place where it is located and a summary of its contents.

The meeting with Dr. Abdulaziz Ibrahim went on in his office, which is surrounded by shelves of documents. After beginning with a general question, Is it true that history exists where a document exists, and is only based on that?

Yes, he answered, and therefore we are eager to have it and we translate it. A document is history, but a document does not write history.

But history is not written on the basis of a document, I said. Usually it is written with the edge of the sword.

That s true, he replied, but not all of history is like that. When Al-A mash Ibn Qays was told, So-and-so has been made Governor of Kufa, he said, Our oppressor and the son of our oppressor has taken charge of acts of oppression against us. And when that Governor gave him something, he said, Our righteous man and the son of our righteous man has taken charge of our interests. Here each of the two statements is a document. Hence we cannot be certain whether that governor was just or unjust. Hence I would like to stress that one must always deal with a document skeptically, but in one way or another it is a complement to the image of an historical event. Documents and history are only the history of the happy world, as the wretched do not write, and no one writes the history of the poor.

I left the city of Al-Ain towards Dubai, heading for its airport with my colleague. I thought, can I, through a quick observation of the cultural contribution in three pioneering centers, comprehend the cultural reality of Abu Dhabi? I hesitate to answer, leaving that to the moment of writing. If the statement of the cultural reality is bigger than the comprehension of it in this hasty work on these limited pages, then perhaps I will at least convey a comprehensive picture of the enjoyable cultural life which the people of the Emirates are living as a result of lofty beacons whose rays stretch out to reach cultured Arabs in every place.


Gamal Mashael


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