OPINION PIECE: Our Ancestors Looked After Nature Instinctively and Consistently
"On land and in the sea, our fore-fathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations."
- Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
In the Year of Zayed, we have many reasons to commemorate the 21st National Environment Day, inspired by the values of our nation’s founding father and its first leader to place great importance on the environment—intuitively giving nature the appreciation and attention it surely deserves.
On this occasion, Ali Saqr Sultan Al Suweidi – Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF (EWS-WWF) – an explorer and leading environmentalist in his own right, has provided us with a deeper understanding of the early Emirati’s relationship with nature—years before our country became the great nation we know it to be today. A theme that quickly emerges from his vast knowledge is how our ancestors lived in harmony with the environmental resources that abounded… decades and centuries ago.
For context, EWS-WWF is the leading local environmental organization in the UAE, driving positive change to conserve the country’s natural heritage. Its vision is to build a sustainable UAE; where our economy, society and the environment can thrive side by side— ultimately enabling people to live in harmony with nature.
Through the many insights Al Suweidi shares around our ancestors’ mode of living in the desert, he asserts that they preserved their environment instinctively and consistently. Every aspect of their lives naturally protected nature and all the resources that came with it. This was, to a great extent, due to the nobility of their character and respect for God’s many gifts.
The paragraphs below examine our ancestors’ physical habitat and lifestyle as told in the stories passed down through the generations; their astronomical measurement system, agriculture and farming practices, sources of food and water— including preparation and conservation— as well as animal care.
The early Emiratis built their houses completely out of arbours and fronds (palm leaves were used to build roofs) and lived in tents made of sheep wool (which women sewed). These tents made mobility easier. During the summer, they lived close to the water and under Prosopis trees. Their tents were sometimes made of canvas (Indian flax). Most people spent the summer season in Al-Ain. Women were in charge of collecting enough dates to last for the upcoming year, during which time the men went on diving trips.
Methods of Marking Dates and Seasons:
Life was arranged according to four seasons: the summer, high summer (al-qayd), fall (al-safri, which are namely the early days of winter) and winter. The summer is what we now consider to be the spring season, while the highsummer was referred to as al-qayd because it coincides with the ripening of dates on palm trees. The drier the weather, the better the quality of the dates. There were different types of dates, and each one had a name, such as Khenaizi. Overall, there are more than 25 types of dates across the UAE. People waited for the rainy season (al-mrba’aniya; which is when the winter gets colder). These were the best rains for the growth of desert truffles (al-faqaa). Our ancestors consumed parts of the Pteropyrum plant because they were rich in iron, and thus mixed them with dates and sardines.
Al-drour is a star-based astronomical measurement system in the UAE. The most important star was Canopus, which would appear in the southern sky on August 18. Al-drour adopted a decimal measurement system. Every ten days is equivalent to one dorr. The count starts at 10, 20, 30, until it reaches 100. The sixtieth dorr, for instance, is when the weather gets cold. In the seventieth, the temperature begins to rise, and women shear the wool from the sheep to keep them cool.
One fascinating story about our forefathers, concerns camels and the Canopus star. They believed that even if camels could carry dates before the Canopus appeared, the camels would not move. Therefore, our ancestors would wait until the star finally appeared so that the camels could start walking. Once the temperature of the seawater began to drop, they knew that the Canopus was about to appear and that winter was near.
To establish their prayer times, people relied on the position and size of the shade. When the sunlight aligned with a vertical stick in the ground, they knew it was noon. Throughout the afternoon, the stick’s shadow grows longer. Canopus was also strongly linked to agriculture and its success. People would wait for the star to appear in order to sow seeds and make sure they grew properly. If they didn’t wait for Canopus, the seeds could not grow!
A fable passed down through many generations states that when Canopus rises, debts are paid. In other words, when the Canopus appears, pearl diving locations multiply and pearl production increases— as visibility improves and pearl hunting gets easier. Divers would come back with many pearls that could help pay their debts.
The ‘Pleiades’ star cluster also disappears for forty days. During that period, dust storms rise up. When the stars reappear, birds lay their eggs and dates ripen. That is why many poems are written about the Pleiades.
Nature was the only teacher our forefathers learned from, and succeeding generations inherited that science from them.
Conserving food and drink:
In the early days, people would bring dates from Al-Ain. They would place them in a large pit and cover them with sand, with a sign over them to pinpoint their location whenever they needed them. Passers-by could also dig and eat. We still repeat our ancestors’ saying that “blessings are scarce” because they knew first-hand how rare resources are. For that reason, people only ate two meals, so they could prevent waste while eating altogether to enjoy the blessing of the gathering. They preserved food and resources, using them wisely, relying primarily on coffee, dates and camel milk.
Our ancestors believed that the future belonged to their children. They were keen to raise them to be strong and able, and made sure that the little ones drank camel milk before bed. This meal was called al-ghabqa.
To save water, people lived far from well water (al-tawi) in the winter and close to it in the summer so that their cattle could drink from it. They dug up a path, known as shari’a, from the well to the stable plantation, and changed the path’s route daily in order to water other stables. They knew the importance of ponds and preserved them by cleaning them regularly, for they used to drink and water the plants from them.
The Blessed Tree:
The palm tree is considered a blessed tree because every part of it can be and was used – in every aspect of their lives. Our forefathers ate the rutab (ripe, soft dates) and made coffee from the seeds. We built our arbours (old habitat) using palm fronds and used palm trees to prepare for diving trips: ropes, oyster baskets and fishnets. Without the palm tree, diving could not exist.
People often travelled from one place to another, which helped protect the environment. In fact, animal dung, including sheep’s, goats’ and camels’, would fertilize the soil in more than one place— thus contributing to plant growth in various places. When plants began to sprout, people would move away to another place to provide calm conditions for growth. They would come back when the plants had grown to a suitable enough level for animals to graze.
On falconry, Al Suweidi also points out that Houbaras and hawks were considered among the most important birds at the time, having great environmental importance, and being used for hunting. However, regardless of the type of game hunted, whether gazelles or rabbits, only two were hunted at a time, to maintain their numbers and prevent extinction. Moreover, our forefathers made sure to hunt the males only and released the females. Neither did they hunt younglings. They would gather to eat their kill to preserve the blessing of food.
Special Care for Camels:
Our ancestors paid special attention to camels because they were an essential aspect of the ecosystem. Camels are beneficial to the environment in many ways, and never destroy it. A case in point is the way camels eat, for they do not take out a plant from its roots. They only eat from the top of the plant. Moreover, camel dung is an excellent soil fertilizer. People drank camel milk, which lessened their consumption of other natural resources.
In conclusion, Al Suweidi reaffirms that preserving our God-given natural resources and environment has been ingrained in the sons of Zayed since the dawn of time. Our calls to adopt the same approach today are simply a reminder to re-establish the connection we once shared with nature. A connection that protects and does not harm. Our ancestors preserved the environment based on pure instinct— an astute lesson for us to follow that same path… for our own sakes and for the sake of many prosperous generations to come.