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Postcards from Ras Al Khaimah

Growing up in a diverse community in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) composed of multi-ethnic and multicultural tribes, I felt ashamed when saying my full name because my tribe was always perceived as being different. “Nope, I don’t know Shehhi (the dialect of my tribe)”, and I don’t know why they perform the Nadbah (celebratory battle cries) either.” This was a standard answer that everyone heard after asking about my tribe’s name. In fact, I did understand the dialect and I enjoyed practicing it on weekends when I'd visit my grandmothers in Julfar and Julan. I also laughed when the Nadbah was performed at weddings and graduation ceremonies because to me it was nothing more than a group of men screaming repetitive words; ho, ho, ho, ho, ho. I was embarrassed to exist within a culture of different tribes because I did not understand why my tribe was different. I knew I was born and raised in a city that wasn’t my parent’s, but I also knew that the weekly visits to Ras Al Khaimah were exhausting. However, this difference was celebrated as soon as I started my undergraduate journey at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), especially being part of a diverse class that embraces where they’re from and how unique they are.


I told my Khaleeji Music Ensemble class in 2020 all about the Shihuh’s journey of music in the mountains, seas, and deserts, and along with the UAE Majlis Student Interest Group, we hosted a virtual event to introduce the NYUAD community to the Emirati music industry. I remember how I passionately cc’d everyone from the Music department that evening, and how the event had a very successful virtual turnout. On that night, Dr. Carlos Guedes, a music professor at NYUAD, emailed me inquiring about my last name, especially as the Shihuh had a long history of fighting against the Portuguese invasion. With several email threads back and forth, we talked about the music, the Nadbah, the fermented fish (Malih), and we discussed the potential of taking this further for academic research. In 2021, we received a grant from Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, to commence the project titled “Exploring Musical Traditions of the Shihuh Tribe in Ras Al Khaimah.” Here’s when my personal and professional relationship with the tribe and the city completely changed.


When both of my grandmothers moved to Abu Dhabi, our weekly visits to Ras Al Khaimah were narrowed down to a few visits every five months to attend celebrations or to tailor clothes. Working as a research assistant and a translator with the Music and Sound Cultures Group (MaSC), allowed me to access both my hometown and my tribe from a scholarly lens, as the main goal of the project was to document and archive the music and its people through audio/video recordings, interviews, and research papers. We met the people, learned a lot about the music and the narratives behind the music, and I finally understood the etymology of the Nadbah and the genealogy of the tribe and its accents/dialects. I revisited my Shehhi accent, visited our neighborhoods, and simply existed as a “Shehhi” in an attempt to live and relive through the musical tunes. I heard my late grandfather, a pearl diver and a drummer sing through the tunes of Rawah, Razif, and M’hobi, and echo through the layers of the Nadbah. I also saw my grandmother use drums and hum lullabies to put my mother to sleep. I was in an intimate circle with the city and the tribe from a lens beyond the ordinary, given access beyond what lives as my last name.


This project resonated and lived within me as it progressed from 2021 until today, especially as I have developed a strong academic interest in tribal literature, culture, history, and linguistics. Approaching my capstone proposal in 2022, I knew I wanted my graduation project to be about Ras Al Khaimah and the Shihuh, and I was extremely excited to further delve into other dimensions of the tribe. This resulted in Postcards from Ras Al Khaimah, which is, on one side, a multigenre collection of prose, poetry, and lyrics layered on photos as postcards, and on the other side, a creative translation, critique, and annotation of the book Shihuh and the Area of Ru’us al-Jibal (1987) by the Iraqi historian Falih Handal. It is an attempt to create and narrate the oral, linguistic, and musical culture of the Shihuh tribe (plural for Shehhi) who dominate the mountainous area of Ru’us al-Jibal, with a history spanning from Yemen to their current relocation in Ras Al Khaimah and Oman. It’s also an attempt to position and reposition myself between a tribe that lives through its history and culture while situating this tribe within the context of Emirati tribes, extending an invitation to access and learn about this tribe. This project uses the book Shihuh and the Area of Ru’us al-Jibal and its translation as a scholarly reference to what has been published in the academic sphere and poses an intervention as an invasion and interruption of the creative work in between.


I end my project with the following:


My hope for this project is that it reaches places near and far, but if one person puts down the book learning something about the tribe and about my family, I have succeeded. If one person remembers Ras Al Khaimah through the history and micro/macrohistory of the tribe, I have succeeded. If one person identifies my last name with Malih (fermented fish) or with the Nadbah, movement, wars, survival, hundreds of years of narratives, or even my grandma’s sign language, I have succeeded. If one person sees the mountains and understands that the tribes of the United Arab Emirates come from different places and have unique histories and cultures, I have succeeded.

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