Fri, 24 Nov 2000

The varied traditions of the UAE people

The people of the UAE, like those of the rest of the peninsula, are of Arab stock. Their forefathers formed part of successive waves of migration 2,000-3,000 years ago that spread eastward across Arabia, bringing with them their culture, language and skills at surviving in what was becoming an increasingly harsh climate.

Popular accounts from such explorers as the British writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the Empty Quarter by camel to arrive in the emirates 50 years ago, have created an impression in the outside world that the people of the region were traditionally nomadic hersdmen, the bedu, moving with their camels and goats across the desert from one pasture to another. There is some truth in that impression, but it is far from the whole picture.

The real desert, with its great sand dunes, is confined to the south and southwest of the country, bordering the Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali). Across these impressive dunes and the gravel plains that fringe them, the nomadic tribesmen migrated, like the Awamir, one of four tribes that comprise the bulk of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi indigenous population.

Yet even in the desert, as at Liwa, south of Abu Dhabi, there are little oases that have been used for hundreds of years by tribes such as the Manasir and the Bani Yas (the confederation headed today by Sheikh Zayed) to cultivate a few palm trees and to grow vegetables.

A legendary capacity for survival in sandy wastes rendered the camel an ideal beast of burden and winding caravans carrying goods for hundreds of kilometers were a familiar feature of this southeastern corner of Arabia right throughout history. Before the discovery of oil, large convoys of camels regularly crossed the desert to Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai, carrying firewood, charcoal, agricultural products and livestock; returning with much-needed supplies to the desert camps or small villages.

Along the coast, groups like the Qubeisat, the Rumaithat and the Sudan, all part of the Bani Yas, engaged in pearl diving or fishing. Many of the men spent part of the year in the oases and the remainder at sea, following a lifestyle far different from the romantic image of the nomadic bedu.

The women stayed at home, looking after the date-palm gardens and the children, obliged to develop a tough and resilient independence far removed from the false perceptions held in much of the world about the women of Arabia.

In the heyday of the pearling industry, over 1,200 pearling boats operated out of the area now known as the UAE, each carrying an average crew of 18 men. Departing for the main summer harvest at the beginning of June in one great picturesque sweep of sail, they also returned to port together, approximately 120 days later, toward the end of September.

The wooden dhows that still can be seen carrying goods to and fro across the Gulf, apart from their diesel engines, are almost identical to those that have been used for centuries.

When pearling was at its height, the most important industry of the southern Gulf was boat-building. In many UAE cities and towns, boatbuilders can still be seen constructing dhows with few tools and no blueprints, practicing skills that have been handed down for centuries.

Boats are carvel-built with planks laid edge to edge; hundreds, sometimes thousands, of holes are hand-drilled to avoid splitting the wood and long think nails, wrapped in oiled fiber, are driven through to secure the planks to the frames. Measurements are made solely by eye and experience; templates are, however, used to shape the hull planking. Although it appears that accuracy depends solely on the instinct of the boatbuilder, a highly experienced master craftsman usually oversees the calculations.

Now, traditional dhows are used as short-haul cargo vessels while specially adapted craft take part in traditional sailing races. Two kinds of boats are used in traditional boat-racing. The first is powered by a single sail that catches the wind to drive the wooden boats of shallow draught. A couple of dozen such sailing boats scudding across the waves, their sales shining in the sun, is one of the most romantic sights to be seen anywhere in this often-romantic country. Other craft are powered by man, not wind, great rowing boats of 20 meters or more rowed by up to 100 oarsmen straining every muscle to reach the finishing line.

Falconry, an integral part of desert life for many centuries, was practiced originally for purely practical reasons, i.e., the necessity to supplement a meager diet of dates, milk and bread with a tasty hare or well-fed bustard. In time it developed into a major sport enjoyed by rich and poor alike.

The saker and the peregrine are the two main species of falcon used for hunting in the UAE, the former being the most popular since it is well-suited to desert hawking. The female saker, larger and more power, is utilized more frequently than the male. Sakers, brave, patient hunters with keen eyesight, take easily to houbara as their primary quarry.

Like other hunters, Emiratis are concerned with the need to understand and protect the environment and the quarry which they hunt. With government support, there are now a number of programs designed to study ways of breeding in captivity the most popular quarry, the houbara bustard, and a full program of research into the country's bird life is now well under way.

Camels were always a beast of burden in the desert areas and are rarely seen on the east coast, a narrow agricultural strip hemmed in by the Hajar mountains. Here, a rather different traditional sport survives, bullfighting. No Spanish-style corrida, however, but a contest that pits bull against bull, with the massive animals locking their horns and wrestling until one turns tail and flees. These bulls are descendants of animals from the Indian subcontinent that were brought in to turn the waterwheels lifting water from shallow wells. Today, their traditional function has been taken over by the pipe or the diesel pump, but the east coast bulls survive and thrive as the popularity of bullfighting among both expatriates and UAE citizens grows.

Emiratis have seen dramatic changes in the few short years since their state was established, change that has provided them with all the benefits of a modern, developed society. At the same time, however, both government and people are determined that their heritage shall be preserved, in line with Sheikh Zayed's belief that "a people that knows not its past can have neither a present nor a future". (Source: UAE Yearbook 1999)