Photos by Anna Balysheva
“Heritage in the UAE is at the forefront in all plans and strategies, its vividness and eternal human values, enhance achievements and open the way towards a greater good.” — Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan
In search of a topic for my thesis film project, I attended the Lest We Forget, Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible exhibition at Warehouse 421, where Dr. Ahmed Al Khoori's collection was on display. When I looked at the stunning beauty of swords, daggers, jewelry and other antiques, my heart whispered — there should be a film about the person behind these treasures. I was surprised to know there were no documentaries produced about his collection, despite the fact that Dr. Khoori received the Tamayyuz award from his Excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan for his efforts in preserving the UAE culture and heritage.
Dr. Khoori allowed me to observe and document his unique world. He belongs to the first Emirati generation who studied abroad and became direct observers of the difficult past as well as the prosperous present. Dr. Khoori invested his life and knowledge for the benefit of his countrymen who honor traditions of the past while also providing young people with a high-class education. While Dr. Khoori’s official career is an engineer, behind this official biography, there is a unique story of a collector.
Dr. Khoori has spent more than five decades preserving his sense of personal and collective identity by collecting numerous material artifacts of the Emirati provenance in his house-museum. He owns over 9,000 antiques, some of which date back to the Stone and Bronze age, the Islamic era and recent Gulf history. The origin of such a large-scale collection goes back to Dr. Khoori’s childhood when he heard stories about ancient civilizations and the heritage of foreign countries from family members who used to be traders and travelers. When he visited the U.K. for the first time and met people from different backgrounds who viewed the UAE as a country full of oil without a distinct historical narrative, he felt an urge to do something meaningful for his nation. He wanted to promote the past of the UAE to prove that there is much more to it than just oil, modern constructions and luxurious life.
Dr. Khoori teaches his grandchildren how to pour coffee in the traditional way in Liwa Desert
After interviewing Dr. Khoori numerous times, I realized there is considerable rationale behind his collection. Initially, he wanted to educate himself about the region and restore his sense of the past. On his path of restoration, he came into contact with the cultural history of the Gulf and started gathering various items that slowly began losing their utilitarian significance after the Union of the Emirates and the accelerated development of modern cities. Then, Dr. Khoori decided to focus on aesthetic looks found in his local arts. But it was not easy to implement since many artefacts were not preserved well. Dr. Khoori spent a lot of time and money on material costs. On some occasions, he had to submit a number of his antiques to the British Museum in London to confirm their authenticity. His next goal was to initiate a platform where people could come and view his collection and perhaps become its future curators and guardians.
Dr. Khoori with his daggers during the production of A Collector’s BIG TIME
Dr. Khoori’s house resembles a small museum, but he cannot accommodate many guests because it is also his family’s private residence. His current dream is to open a private museum accessible to local and foreign visitors in the center of Abu Dhabi. This private museum would hold artifacts belonging to the wider human civilization, because his collection reveals patterns of how the current UAE identity is tied to its economic and social relationship with Yemen, Oman, Persia and other lands of the Indian ocean. His collection raises questions about popular migration and trade that let people borrow different materials and traditions from each other. In this regard, Dr. Khoori’s collection becomes an unintended example of the cultural symbiosis.
Dr. Khoori presents his book on the UAE heritage at Abu Dhabi Executive Council
Symbolic events and material things always bear some sort of unique memory. When I asked Dr. Khoori who is interested in his collection the most, he said when older people see his preserved objects, their eyes reflect the memories of childhood. But young people are astonished that there was such a rich culture. Dr. Khoori draws attention to the fact that interest in the material culture of the past is awakening slowly, because many locals want to find the answer to the questions: who are we and what is ours? In my short film A Collector's BIG TIME, Dr. Khoori responds to these questions by saying: “We did not come out of the sky, from nowhere, we have been living here for over seven thousand years. And you cannot just say we have been living here for seven thousand years, you have to show them something!”. He shows this important information through private and public exhibitions by linking modern times with traditions of the past. Currently, Dr. Khoori is preparing to publish his book about the UAE history from the era of Umm al-Nar to the present day, revealing the UAE customs and heritage in their various forms.
Anna Balysheva is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]