Oral History

Not all history is written down. Some would say that most history has never been documented. Only major historical events were recorded, while minor historical events were not jotted down in the annals of history, but rather kept alive in people’s memory.  Oral history is concerned with collecting and documenting historical stories, events and circumstances that were unwritten.
If we go back to the pre-Union and pre-oil periods, we would observe that history documentation was a luxury that could not be afforded by the UAE society.  In the period following the collapse of the pearl industry and prior to the formation of the Union, the UAE did not have the necessary human and economic resources for the written documentation of history or by the then existing mass media. The era preceding the establishment of the Union seems so far away as the development that followed the formation of the Union have created an intellectual gap between the Emirates of yesterday and today.  Mass media and newspapers have been around at that time in the Arabian Gulf region and throughout the Arab World. However, they were very far away from the UAE. While documenting oral history is important for all countries, it is all the more important for the UAE, because a large portion of its history was not recorded.
For example, many people in the UAE know that the collapse of the pearl economy was due to the development of cultured pearls by the Japanese inventor and merchant, Mikimoto Kokichi. Nevertheless, this information is all what most people know about the collapse of the pearl fishing profession. A fairly large number of people who are unfamiliar with the UAE think that oil discovery was the main reason behind the collapse of pearl diving. Therefore, it can be safely concluded that historical information is incomplete in a way similar to a picture with missing parts. Sometimes, a picture can be recognized in spite of its missing parts, nevertheless it is still incomplete. This is precisely the case with oral history that completes the missing parts of the picture and quite often, brings to light pictures that have been totally overlooked. 
The collapse of the pearl-dependent economy was not a sudden event as many might imagine.  It was rather gradual, although events happened in rapid succession after the emergence of cultured pearls in the global markets.  Cultured pearls were considered fake and cheap compared to natural pearls.  However, because it was difficult to tell natural and cultured pearls apart, the natural pearl trade was adversely affected and replaced by cultured pearls for good. When talking about pearl diving as mentioned in historical books, one cannot help wondering why haven’t men looked for other professions? The answer is that other professions were dependent on pearl diving. However, history presents the collapse of pear diving as if it were one profession. Accordingly, the reader will be puzzled by the facts, which mention that Emirati pearl traders went bankrupt, as a question may arise about the other sources of income. In fact, pearl diving was the whole economy per se, and it is worth noting that it was an integral economy rather than a profession.
Firstly, this economic system consisted of a natural resource: the pearls.  Moreover, the Arabian Gulf pearls were the finest in the world. Secondly, there were the merchants who bought the pearls from local traders or the Nakhodas (ships captains) and then exported the pearls to India, Britain and the world market respectively.  Thirdly, there were the diving vessel crew including divers, seebs (a Seeb: is a man who sits at the edge of the boat holding one end of a rope, which is tied to the diver at the other end) and other workers as well as their families and the shipbuilders.  Furthermore, there was a fishing profession and the import of necessary materials for people such as food, clothes and other goods. Therefore, the pearl industry was the backbone of the economy and its collapse led to the fall of all other economic sectors underpinned by the pearling industry.
Another question comes to mind here: What happened to individuals when the economy collapsed?  Of course, all men lost their jobs. But what happened next? How did people cope? This part is considerably recorded in history, for documented history in the past was often biased towards general economic aspects, major political events and international relations. Nevertheless, history has often overlooked people and their experiences as well as the impact of economic and political changes on them.  Here comes the role of oral history in recording and documenting the people’s memories, daily life, feelings and emotions, interactions, poems and sufferings. These matters are entirely absent in the official historical records and are completely unknown to the present generations.
Life in the UAE society during the collapse of the pearl diving economy is one of the areas, which the Oral History Section at the National Archives seeks to look into, comprehend and explore its consequences and facts.  This cannot be accomplished by academic research only, but also by recorded interviews that aim at reaching and documenting the knowledge still vivid in the memory of our fathers and grandfathers in order to establish a knowledge resource for future generations.