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Dubai Abulhoul: Addressing the gap in Emirati folklore and literature
December 22, 2014
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The United Arab Emirates emerged as a nation state after the six Trucial States of the Gulf were united in 1971; Ras Al-Khaimah joined as the seventh Emirate in 1972. However, long before the union, the different Emirates were tribal sheikhdoms and socio-political entities that were built on kin-based values and a rich cultural heritage. Emirati folklore and myths, including the various tales of djinn, played an important role in the daily lives of the people at the time. The figures in Emirati folklore can be understood as a form of doubling people’s hopes, desires, and even fears; and that gives us a glance at how the culture and society of the United Arab Emirates worked back then.

The people of the Emirates used folktales and images of djinn to project their morals and values. The narratives, passed down from one generation to the other, were a form of doubling of personalities, beliefs, religion, and ideas. Within the old Emirati society, which is not unlike many others, was a deep attraction to the supernatural and the hidden. The idea of an existing parallel world was always fascinating to people, especially when the idea of djinn had its roots deep in the Islamic teachings of the Quran. The narratives, despite their frightening elements, played an important role in instilling cultural and religious values in children. Nowadays, these narratives can help us uncover the mentality that existed back in former times, from the fearful elements of the djinns to the moral lessons behind their actions.

The study of Arab history and Islam was initially based on oral testimonies, and the same can be said about the study of Emirati folklore. All the currently existing literature on the subject is the accumulation of different versions of stories that were passed on from one generation to the next. There is little and, almost to a certain extent, no formal documentation of the narratives of different mythical figures in the United Arab Emirates. Understanding the myths and figures in Emirati folklore can help us better understand the culture that existed previously, and ultimately, it can help us better understand ourselves. While I recognise that the United Arab Emirates is a young country that continues to build itself everyday in various fields, I think it is important to put more effort into conducting proper research required for understanding and analysing the figures in Emirati folklore. The older generations are the last link to the past of the United Arab Emirates, and if efforts to document their oral testimonies and personal narratives are not put into effect, I am afraid that it would be too late.

Research institutions and governmental entities should address the gap in Emirati folklore and literature by making it a priority to integrate the myths and narratives into educational systems. It is crucial to pass on the narratives to the upcoming generations through creative and innovative ways. Teaching the myths and figures of Emirati folklore to younger generations would introduce them to the culture their grandparents, and great-grandparents, lived in, as opposed to the dull history lessons that are currently being offered in both private and public school curriculums. It would be a great opportunity to attract the attention of the younger generation by capturing their interest in fantasy and mythical creatures, while teaching them important lessons about their culture as well.

The narratives will take students back in time to learn about what figures like Um Al-Duwais (a beautiful and young djinn that murdered all the men that came after her) and Khataf Rafai (a djinn that took the form of a sailing boat and destroyed all the pearling boats that came in its way) meant to the people who lived in earlier times. The stories of Bu-Daria (the father of the sea) and Salama and her daughters (female djinns that terrorised sailors and pearl divers) will teach the younger generation about how their ancestors were part of the pearl diving industry. The narrations will also introduce them to the ideas of the “Nukhetha” and the “Senyar,” all while taking them on a thrilling adventure at sea.

Understanding a country’s past is key in understanding not only its present, but also realising its future as well. The figures in Emirati folklore, as frightening as they may seem, played a vital role in the societies our ancestors lived in, and I hope to see the day that they impact the future generations as well; one frightening djinn at a time.

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The author is an Emirati novelist-writer

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