Monday, 12 May 2008

We have our own heroes, we don’t need other people’s

By: Sultan Al Qassemi

Do you believe in heroes? Not the kind found in animated comics but those who really exist. Heroes who risk their lives for the betterment of man, who leave behind safe environments, their families and their homes to travel to war zones to give others – people they have never met and possibly will not meet again – a better life.

They change into special uniforms, employ valuable medical and communication skills, and protect women, children and the elderly. They forsake their own comfort in order to elevate the lives of other human beings. But do they exist? Indeed they do. They are our troops in Afghanistan.

A country that civilisation forgot, a country that begs to be remembered for something more than a three-decade war, first with the Soviets, then with the Taliban and finally with itself, Afghanistan is desperate for a little peace and tranquillity.

As an Emirati, I have never felt so much pride in my country’s flag as seeing it adorn the uniforms of our brave soldiers in Afghanistan in a recent report by the veteran BBC correspondent Frank Gardner. Recently, the National Identity Authority introduced an intriguing superhero who resembles a cross between a Bollywood actor and an international football star called Ajaaj in the hope that he would instil local values and beliefs in our youth.

What they fail to understand is that Emiratis do not need to invent local heroes because they already exist. We do not need Ajaaj when we have the likes of Major Ghanem al Mazroui and his troops serving for the past five years in Afghanistan, a most treacherous place where one cannot easily differentiate between friend and foe.

The recently held national identity conference in Abu Dhabi addressed the importance of wearing dishdashas, sporting beards, and locally producing television programmes, but did it speak of pride? It is a most powerful force that can transform the weakest will into the strongest resolve.

It is ironic how in a flourishing country of seven monarchies we honour a person such as Jamal Abdul Nasser, who effectively toppled his own prosperous nation’s king then went on to encourage and finance half a dozen other anti-monarchical coups – from the bloody murder of the 23-year-old King Faisal of Iraq to the toppling of the Yemeni royal dynasty.

The Emirates are dotted with streets and squares in which we remember and honour Abdul Nasser, but we forget to honour even one of the 4,000 troops – larger than any other GCC nation’s contribution – who defended Kuwait in 1990. Others include the 1,500 peacekeeping troops in the Balkans who built a humanitarian city and a 900-metre airstrip that cut down aid transport time by 10 hours; those in Lebanon who have just returned after a dangerous mine-clearing mandate in the south; and those in Somalia and Pakistan, where much needed aid has been distributed. There have been humanitarian efforts also in pre- and post-Saddam Iraq. Where are the streets that honour them?

The UAE goes way beyond other OECD countries by distributing aid equivalent to 0.8 per cent of the nation’s GDP versus an average of 0.25 per cent for developed countries. The aid isn’t just financial. Barely days after the fall of Saddam there were delegations, both official and civilian, travelling to Iraq to offer humanitarian assistance.

Aid didn’t stop flowing even after the kidnapping of the diplomat Naji al Nuaimi in Baghdad by terrorists for a fortnight in 2006, or when an aid convoy including ambulances was bombed as it entered Lebanon, or recently when Arif al Tunaiji, a diplomat serving in Afghanistan, was injured after terrorists attacked a Kabul hotel.

In the autumn of 2007, the Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed honoured the families of eight Emirati men in uniform who died in the service of their country. They included Salem Suhail, who was shot on Nov 30 1971 while guarding Tunb Island, and Abdullah Kaseen, who died in 1981 attempting to stop arms smugglers entering the Emirates.

It is yet another testament to the wisdom of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding President, that the country sent troops to assist the Afghans in rebuilding their shattered lives. The UAE forces have proven that they are capable of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghanis by talking to them, eating with them and praying with them.

Emiratis need not honour revolutionaries who have brought poverty into their countries, nor do we need to invent heroes who have imaginary powers. We are the UAE, we have real heroes with real names: they are called Salem, Abdullah and Major Ghanem.

Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is also founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai

The column first appeared in The National on May 11th 2008


Meera Al Suwaidi said...

I agree, I agree, and I agree! We have a lot of heroes living within us that should be glorified for their achievements and courage. Little children that have saved their younger siblings from fires, victims of war (our soldiers that you mentioned), humanitarianists that have traveled around the world to help people deprived of their right to live a safe and happy life, and many more ... I think there should be a campaign to support this issue in order to scream out and say: Be Nationalistic! Instead of looking at external achievements and awarding them, let's award our people for their great efforts ... There have been awards extended out to people but honestly, they don't deserve it! We as a nation, need to reach out and find our heroes that don't need to speak of what they have done, but allow their actions to do all the talking ...

Meera Al Suwaidi

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Al Qassimi,
I read your article with interest. We are all proud of what the UAE army is doing to preserve peace and save life not only in Afghanistan but also in Lebanon with its de-mining project as well as its work in Kosovo.
We also have larger than life actual heroes who have worked miracles in this land like the founding fathers of the UAE who have turned its desert into an exemplary cosmopolitan city, not to mention achievers in various strands of life be it sports, arts or science.
However, all cultures and civilizations have their own great real life heroes as well as imaginary superheroes. Superheroes have a different role, and they are as ancient as history. The Greek deities for instance have been depicted as superheroes, and some were protagonists while others antagonists. In our Arab and Islamic cultures we did have our own superheroes, Saif bin Thi Yazen, Ala Al Dein, as well as Antar Bin Shadad and Abu Zayed Al Hilali were all given super powers that exceeded the norm. These superheroes, regardless if they were real people or imagined, have inspired generations around the world and helped install many moral values of timeless and global appeal such as bravery and dedications. Ajaaj is an attempt to revive a global literary genre that our children have been deprived from and were, therefore, forced to admire Superheroes that do not represent our culture or civilization.
I tried to locate the BBC article that you referenced (would appreciate if you can hyper-link it) that described Ajaaj as a cross-over between a Bollywood actor and a football player, but in vain. I can’t really attest to the description since I neither watch Bollywood movies nor football. However, I am sure that you can understand that this a mere perception that is largely dependent on people’s cultural exposure. To me for instance he looks like a cross-over between Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohamed and Sheikh Zayed when he was young. Again, it is a matter of exposure. I would be interested, however, to know your opinion regarding the comic book itself. Do you actually think he is closer to a Bollywood actor? Do you find the stories interesting in any way? Does it fail to achieve its objective?
For all I could see, you may be a hero of this country, that doesn’t mean that our kids don’t need superheroes that can inspire them in ways neither me nor you can.
With best regards
Mohamed Baharoon

Anonymous said...

I believe that comic books super heroes are needed to teach us, inspire and instill in us the morals and values that we would not otherwise appreciate or take as seriously were they to be taught to us by teachers or parents as children.

Real life heroes are the practical side of those comic heroes and reinstate our belief in those values and encourage us to be as selfless.

Sultan Al-Qassemi said...

Dear folks

Please remember to leave your emails so I can actually reply. I would like extinct and Mohammed Baharoon to send their comments to James at The National at it is important for me to create debate even if it critical of my point of view.