Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Getting Historical

I like museums. It may be odd, but I always have. All those musty looking objects with that tremendous sense of history about them.

Perhaps it was inspired by my parents’ firm belief that holidays are not only the destination, but the journey too. So we would stop off at old battlefields, and little pokey museums and wander around in awe (probably with the odd complaint too, I was still a kid) looking at the various antiquities. And my mom would find an appropriate reference in one of her travel guides, and read to us about the history of the area.

So it was with great delight that I decided to visit some of Abu Dhabi’s heritage sites.

The first one we visited was the Bedouin Heritage. This is not exactly a museum, but a replica of the lifestyle in and around the Arabian Gulf before the rich wealth of oil was discovered.

There was a replica Bedouin campsite, and walking through the tents gave me an incredible feeling of what it had been like to live in them. I had a mental image of a bible story – when God sends angels to tell Abraham that they would have children. Sarah had been sitting apart from the men, but could hear what they were saying, and laughed out loud at the thought as she was very old.

I could picture it, especially with the old wooden cradle suspended from the roof.

There were other things to look at too – the reed housing that formed the more permanent structures of the day, and snippets of the regions history as a pearl diving centre.

It was very interesting, but kind of limited. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the guide who took us around the village was Sudanese!

The second site we decided to visit was the Old Fort (the Al Hosn Palace), which is one of the oldest buildings in Abu Dhabi. It has these huge white-washed walls, and looking at it in the bright sunlight was just about blinding.

I was a little disappointed here though, because there was absolute no one around to show us the interior, and we couldn’t figure out which door to use. So we took a casual amble around the exterior. I would love to know more of its history, and take a look inside. I will have to make a return trip.

This week we stopped off at the Emirates Heritage Village, which is run by the Emirates Heritage Club. The Heritage Club was set up in 1997, and aims to protect and preserve the heritage of the UAE.

It was absolutely lovely. There was a section with the traditional tented culture, as well as the reed huts we saw at the other village.

But most interesting were the various rooms in one building that demonstrated some of the crafts and skills that the Emiratis have developed over the years.

The first “shop” we stopped in was the spice shop. A very friendly gentleman opened up all his jars had us take a sniff. Even a whiff of the world’s most expensive spice – saffron! Mr Hassan Mohamed told us how some of the spices are used to create the special Arabic flatbreads. And then he proudly showed off some of the soap that his wife makes by hand from olive oil. I bought some!

We stopped in at the weaving shop, where a man was energetically making a fantastically beautiful wall hanging. It was incredibly detailed and he told us that it took 20 days just to weave one square metre of wool into a picture. He then roped a young girl from a tourist group into giving the loom a try.

We also visited the pottery shop, the glass blowing shop, the traditional curved dagger making place, and the basket weaving. We looked in at the women in traditional clothing (worn always, and not only at the village) and how they weaved the blankets on this long slender looms using their hands and feet. Another woman was braiding the silver threads into strips that are used to decorate the dresses worn under the black abayas.

There was also a small museum which showed some of the tools that have been used over the years, as well as some examples of pearl traders’ equipment.

And then, to my youngest daughter’s delight we came across the agricultural section. First up was the system of irrigation used to make things grow in the desert. She spotted what she thought was a donkey, but was a very big bull. The bull pulls a leather bucket thing with a spout from out a deep well. When it reaches the top, the bucket tips over, and the water pours out of the spout into these long irrigation channels. It took a long time it, but it definitely worked.

We then met a real donkey (or ass, it was the one with the cross on its back). The donkey took a shine to my daughter and brayed in dismay when she stopped scratching his head and we walked over to see another “donkey” – which was actually a camel.

I was a wee bit nervous to get too close to the camel, as there were no guides around and I had no idea what kind of temperament it had. I posed gingerly near it for a photo, and walked on to the falconry section.

We weren’t able to see much here as the falconry displays are only done once week in the evenings. Next time!

The Heritage Club puts a lot of effort into its work – everything from archeological digs to producing pamphlets of the significance of the date palm in Arab culture.

And that’s what caught my attention. Every single one of the people we spoke to at the Heritage Village was truly passionate about what they were doing, and why they were doing it.

I have yet to visit the equivalent “cultural village” in South Africa, though I know there are many. And I also haven’t visited a museum at home for years. I plan to when we next visit. And I hope we are able to experience the same passion for their culture as what I saw at the Emirates Heritage village.

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