Not everyone feels a connection with cultural heritage. Some may think that folklore, ancient artifacts and traditions are archaic and unnecessary, but encountering the past and its legacy is crucial to understand what shapes today’s society. Understanding, enjoying, valuing and preserving cultural heritage provide a sense of unity in diversity. Cultural heritage is also a source of social memory, a record of the remote roots and patterns of continuities and discontinuities of nations, the result of a selection process of memory and oblivion. As Zbigniew Kobylinski explains it in Cultural Heritage Preservation: “The protection of cultural heritage should therefore not only be the preservation of its authentic historical substance, ensuring its abidance and continuation but it should also involve ensuring that the general public has possibility to be benefited by, and to have active access to the values inherent in this heritage. This ensures that the cultural heritage can participate in the spiritual life of a human being, a social group and a whole nation”.
The United Arab Emirates has fulfilled the two conditions needed to ensure protection of their cultural heritage: an adequate legal and administrative framework, and a deep social consciousness and involvement. Government entities have taken and continue to take several measures to preserve the Emirati cultural heritage and to create awareness about it, in particular through establishing museums and heritage villages, forming clubs, holding festivals and events, organizing exhibitions and book fairs, and financing archeological expeditions and excavations. Ancient artifacts – including a large collection from the Stone Age and Paleontological fossils – are displayed in numerous museums as well as online – virtual platforms.
Grassroots and individual/collective private initiatives also contribute to the ethics of cultural heritage’s care, whether through formal or informal channels. Heritage education is an important component of the courses I teach for instance, from Islamic Art and Architecture to Cultures and Religions of the Middle East. My classes encompass individuals from diverse ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. When students tell the stories of their different perceptions and experiences in Al Fahidi historical neighborhood in Dubai, the museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah, the oldest mosque in Fujairah, the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival in Abu Dhabi, the breathtaking scenery of Jebel Jais, or through learning the steps of the Ayyala, reciting the poetry of Ousha Bint Khalifa Bin Ahmad Al Suwaidi, cooking Machbous, Harees, Raqaq and Chebab, and drinking Arabic coffee, they share visceral encounters with both the contemporary Emirati culture and its foundations; encounters that bring alive the layers of history, hopes, dreams, struggles and achievements.
These encounters and many others help preserve the local cultural heritage through inclusion, immersion, conviviality and transmission, and at the same time celebrate cultural diversity in dialogue. They contribute to the understanding that cultural boundaries are not necessarily well-defined, and that human history is made of mutual influences, interpenetrations, cultural appropriations and fusions. Encountering the United Arab Emirates cultural heritage reminds us that what matters is how we engage in historical acts; what matters is that identities are both situated and open-ended, and that heterogeneity constitutes a potential common ground for cross-cultural understanding.