Decolonizing Emirati history; reexamining the academic context | Alia Al Hazami - GulfToday

Decolonizing Emirati history; reexamining the academic context

Alia Al Hazami

@AliaAlHazami

The writer is a published author and columnist for Sail emagazine and Gulf Today.

The writer is a published author and columnist for Sail emagazine and Gulf Today.

Zayed-Hoist

UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed and leaders of emirates hoist the national flag in December 1971. File/ Gulf Today Archive

On my graduating semester, I was lucky to take a course with His Highness Sheikh Dr. Mansoor Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, a brilliant academic, medical practitioner, and pilot. His Highness taught a course on Southwest Asia, exploring history, politics, and socioeconomic conditions within the region. What captivated me the most however, was the focus on UAE history. Never had I had the opportunity to be taught about such topics within an academic context.

Prior to this class, my knowledge on the UAE was very limited. All the information I have attained was either passed down to me by my elders or the National Studies class I had to take at school. Thus, leading me to think that my basic knowledge is all I needed to learn since that was what I was being taught in school. Frankly, I had only learned the basics, which was that the UAE was unified in 1971, pearl diving was one of the main professions, and that oil was later discovered in the area. While all those three milestones are crucial to our history, having schools solely discuss those topics hurts the historic core and significance of the UAE; which is perseverance and defying all odds. Those major two themes are sadly not examined thoroughly by our educational system.

Therefore, when I joined the social sciences at university, and was exposed to such a Eurocentric curriculum, I started to wonder, why wasn’t my history this rich? Or rather, was I even aware of what my history actually is? From there, I delved into literature written by mostly foreign and some local scholars to truly grasp the richness of the UAE. After my mass consumption of literature, I realized that whatever I was being taught at school did not even begin to scratch the surface and in a sense, it was not being funnelled in the proper lens.

The UAE was indeed a protectorate of Great Britain. As such, it isn’t very shocking to have many of its records and historical accounts written in English by the British. When examining any form of text, one has to look at the author. Most of those authors lead completely different lives and had drastically different cultures. Sometimes, their work might come off as rather ethnocentric. Meaning, our history ended up being recorded from a colonized lens. No matter how long those authors have lived here, they simply cannot truly grasp our culture and values without comparing it to theirs at the back of their heads; it’s only human nature. Our ancestors’ lives were thus displayed from the view of individuals who might have viewed us as “the other”. Leaving future generations like myself to wonder, was that an accurate representation of my people? Surely, their lives and struggles were much deeper than what is being represented.

The way we are taught history needs to be reexamined. The UAE is far more than the unification, pearling, and discovery of oil. We are currently in the midst of writing our history for future generations.

With my struggles to understand and connect with my past, I jumped at the chance to take a class with His Highness Sheikh Dr. Mansoor. I was extremely excited because our history is usually oral. What made his class extra interesting was the fact that he lived some of the history, and a huge part of his legacy was in the content he was teaching us. I could not wait to have it recorded on paper directly from the source. His teachings moved us, because they were being portrayed through the eyes of someone who had a deep-rooted connection to the class material at hand. His five-month course taught me information that I will carry with me for a lifetime.

Among many topics, we learned about the significance of Zayed the First, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan’s namesake, a crucial figure in UAE history that is sadly overlooked in our textbooks. The lectures also examined political power struggles, the Portuguese occupation, and British involvement. We were exposed to the innovative methods through which the struggling populations made the desert habitable, the intricate taxation systems, and the hardships those populations had to face to merely survive. The class also discussed all the treaties our previous leaders signed with the British. In school, I was taught all about the Treaty of Westphalia and the Warsaw Pact, two important moments in history. However, no history or National Studies instructor cared to teach the General Maritime Treaty or the Perpetual Treaty of Peace signed by our previous rulers. Unfortunately, despite being located in the UAE, my school never saw it imperative to discuss treatises that impacted the livelihood of the land that later unified into the UAE.

Moreover, I find it especially problematic that our history is brushed over by the academic system. The UAE is currently witnessing a surge of Political Science and International Relations graduates who hope to become this country’s future diplomats. Those graduates have spent countless hours learning about the French Revolution, the two World Wars, and the Cold War. While they are indeed very important in understanding world politics, those graduates also need to be exposed to their own history to better represent their country on international platforms. It is true that it is up to the individual to educate themselves, but academic schooling is also vital for information absorption.

The way we are taught history needs to be reexamined. The UAE is far more than the unification, pearling, and discovery of oil. We are currently in the midst of writing our history for future generations. What was a country in a barren desert is literally shooting for the stars through space exploration. Still, how can our children truly value how far we have come if they do not necessarily comprehend the struggles our ancestors had to endure? As His Highness Sheikh Zayed stated, “Those who do not have a past do not have a present.” In order to truly celebrate what the UAE is becoming, we need to begin the celebration by revisiting what the country was, and how its history is the reason it is shaping a glorious future.

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