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Story | Education
18 June 2019

When the past empowers the future


Preserving Qatar’s heritage and history to foster a sense of identity among the young people of the nation

With technology creating a bridge for globalization – one that is seamlessly merging the cultures of world, many culture enthusiasts are working hard to maintain a fine balance between preserving priceless cultural heritage and traditions of yesterday with the ever-evolving urbanization of the present day.

A nation’s culture, and its heritage reflect, and shape values, aspirations, and beliefs that define the national identity of the people of the country, keeping them rooted, therefore, making it imperative to preserve national cultural treasures.

At Qatar Foundation (QF) a belief was cultivated years ago – that true progress happens in society when its people, especially its youth, are connected to their roots. And it is this belief that Mariam Al Thani shares.

As a student at Qatar Academy Doha (QAD) – a school under QF’s Pre-University Education – and then at QF partner universities Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), and UCL Qatar, Al Thani was conscious of the need to learn more about her country’s history and traditions.

Shaima Sherif, UCL-Qatar’s Public Engagement Coordinator

Embarking on the journey

“Growing up, I was mostly taught the history of other cultures and civilizations,” says Al Thani. “Though it enriched my knowledge, hardly seeing Qatar mentioned anywhere – in history textbooks, classrooms, and museums – affected me.”

“I realized that Qatar’s culture depended on the oral recitation of history. So I felt it was the duty of young people like myself to ensure that our past is recorded and safeguarded for future generations.”

While at UCL Qatar, she heard of a project called ‘The Origins of Doha and Qatar’ funded by QF member Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) and led by Dr. Robert Carter, the university’s Professor of Arabian and Middle Eastern Archaeology, to unearth Qatar’s past.

“Originally, my interest in the project was simply based on the fact that Qatar’s history was being explored,” Al Thani says. “I was eager to join the project; I saw this as an opportunity to engage in the process of recording our past, whilst simultaneously raising awareness of such a worthwhile project.”

That was three years ago, but while Al Thani graduated from UCL Qatar in 2018 with an MA in Museum and Gallery Practice, she continues to be a volunteer researcher at the university, devoted to uncovering her country’s past – and to ensuring that information unavailable to her when she was growing up is passed on to Qatar’s youth.

Dr. Robert Carter, Professor of Arabian and Middle Eastern Archaeology at UCL Qatar

The project

For the past few years, Al Thani has been working alongside Annie Rowbotham, Head of Public Engagement at UCL Qatar, Shaima Sherif, UCL Qatar’s Public Engagement Coordinator, and Dr. Carter, to bring Qatar’s history to as many of the nation’s students as possible.

Having explored various possibilities, they decided that the best way to do this was to release a downloadable illustrated presentation, and a pack for teachers, that encapsulated their findings in a simple yet engaging manner.

The presentation, titled ‘Origins of Doha and Qatar – Traditional Qatari Homes’, and its accompanying teacher’s guide were released online in February 2019, and can be freely accessed by the public. According to Al Thani, the response of both teachers and students who have used the presentation and the accompanying teacher’s guide, has been ‘tremendous’.

“Educators across the country have written to us, saying that their students are excited to learn how their grandparents or great-grandparents lived, what they wore and what they ate,” says Al Thani.

The outcomes of such QF-funded research complement larger initiatives to ensure that QF’s resources, infrastructure and expertise are not only used for advancing future fields such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and genomics, but also for conserving heritage buildings and sites that come under QF’s physical and administrative domain. These include structures and buildings such as the Al Shaqab Historic Pool, Sheikh Abdulla Bin Thani House, and Al Khater House.

And where the latter building is concerned, Jawaher Al-Khater, Project Manager, Business Enhancement and Projects, QF, says that she is proud to see QF’s efforts to preserve the house where her parents and grandparents lived.

“It demonstrates how QF cares about our past and will spare no efforts to conserve it,” she says. “The house is a tangible part of Qatar’s living memory; something which exists not just in photographs.

“On a personal note, it is a place I relate to when my parents speak about a memory of theirs. For example, when my father refers to something that occurred while he was seated in the majlis of Al Khater House, I can actually picture the exact spot where he would have been sitting and how the place looked like then.”

Nur Alah Abdelzayed Valdeolmillos, a Senior Architect at QF’s Capital Projects Directorate

When young people know where they come from, they learn to respect values and traditions more. When they hear about the hardships their ancestors faced, they learn to face their own future with determination.

Nur Alah Abdelzayed Valdeolmillos

Preserving the past

Nur Alah Abdelzayed Valdeolmillos – a Senior Architect at QF’s Capital Projects Directorate, and an expert in the conservation and restoration of heritage buildings – has, for the past eight years, been helping QF preserve and document historic structures within Education City. The architectural expert helped QF come up with a masterplan based on state-of-the-art conservation practices that adhere to international standards set by UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Valdeolmillos explains that QF sees the documentation and conservation of heritage sites within Education City as a vital element in helping to nurture global citizens. According to her, heritage buildings are an embodiment of accumulated knowledge that helps a community relate to a specific geographical area; she says that existence of heritage buildings alongside state-of-the-art university buildings, within the same campus, gives young people a balanced perspective of Qatar’s past, present and future journey.

“When young people know where they come from, they learn to respect values and traditions more,” she says. “When they hear about the hardships their ancestors faced, they learn to face their own future with determination.

“They start to bridge the gap between two completely different lifestyles which are in reality, only a couple of generations apart. This makes them comfortable with who they are; they stop fearing differences, and start appreciating not just their own culture, but other cultures as well.”

Valdeolmillos believes that the impact of such QF initiatives goes beyond simply enhancing young people’s cultural understanding – they are helping to shape their identity.

As she says: “QF is giving young people in Qatar the tools for culturally sustainable development; the ability to look the world in the eye and say, ‘We, too, have a history; and it is a history we can be proud of.”

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