Qatar has gone through a major urban development that everyone can attest to. Such developments are important to ensure the prosperity of the citizens of any state. Urbanization and providing facilities have a crucial role in attracting tourists, which consequently contributes to the growth of the economy. However, we do not address the negative impact of urbanization on the environment, namely its effect on reducing the number of plants, animals, and the other living components that constitute a balanced ecosystem. Unfortunately, the world might only notice these side effects once too late. For this reason, the Qatari researcher, and the manager of Al Khamis reservation for al-fag’a, wild, and indigenous plants, Dhabya Abdullah Mohammed Al Sulaiti, has been active in preserving the environment seeking to sustain and protect the wild plants and all the other living elements that constitute the wildlife in Qatar. Her efforts saved many endangered Qatari plants by increasing their numbers and spreading awareness. Also, she has been active in documenting Qatar’s culture and social history. So, who is Dhabya Abdullah Mohammed Al Sulaiti?
I was part of the first batch of students to graduate from Qatar University with a major in Arabic from the college of Education at Qatar University (QU). I am also a researcher in the Arabic language with a particular focus on documenting the Qatari dialect. My research in this field began with my graduation project which was about Qatari words found in Mehyar Al-Dailmi’s poetry collection. Although he was Persian, he was a writer and a poet who used standard Arabic in his writings. The research investigated and documented the words belonging to the Qatari dialect mentioned in his poetry collection, which is still in use in Qatar. And those words would be compared with what can be found about them in major Arabic dictionaries. This was the beginning of my passion for everything Qatari, whether it be culture, heritage, and/or dialect. I had plans to complete graduate studies in Cairo, but that did not happen. Traveling to study at that time would have interfered with my role as a mother and a housewife, so I preferred to focus on my family and raise my children. During that time, I was working at the Arabic department at QU, but I changed my job and joined the Documentation and Humanities Research Center as a researcher to stay in the field of research that I love. The Documentation and Humanities Research Center was concerned with studies about Qatari society. I was part of a group of women researchers interested in everything that represents Qatar. My work at the Centre has contributed significantly to my love of researching Qatar and its people. During my work at the Center, we had plenty of opportunities to meet many Qatari people from different age groups and areas. One of the projects we worked on was collecting Qatari folklore. This project was done in collaboration with the Centre of Heritage of The Arabian Gulf States. We were successful in collecting 3000 tales. Later, the Center of Heritage approached us to collect data for various research. I researched traditional medicine in the Gulf, researched the diseases caused by diving to collect pearls and one about maternal and child diseases in ancient Qatar. All of these studies were instrumental in our understanding of the depth of Qatari culture through the stories told by Qatari people about their and their ancestors’ experiences and stories. After that, we worked with the Center of Heritage on another research about the costumes of Qatari women in the past. We were a team of four researchers, and I was responsible for collecting, recording, and drafting the chapter on dresses, as well as proofreading the whole research. Alhamdulillah, the result of that research, was a valuable book that many researchers still ask us to reprint. Unfortunately, the Center of Heritage was closed despite all the rich studies and research it produced. After all these experiences, I felt that I must continue my journey as a Qatari researcher without resorting to any research institution. And so, I began to record any information regarding our heritage, culture, the dialect of the people of Qatar, and any other aspects of their lives that distinguish them, socially and culturally, from the other Gulf states. I have collected a considerable number of notes over the years that I plan to publish soon inshallah.
What sources do you refer to in your research?
My first source is the old Arabic books. I have loved reading since I was a child, and I remember that I volunteered to help the school librarian clean the library in the sixth grade. During the cleaning, I would try to read the titles of books while dusting them, and the librarian used to give me some extra periodicals as a reward for my work. With time, I had collected enough books that I had a small library of mine. I loved reading so much that I would read anything that could be read, like newspaper clippings and magazines that some of the vendors were wrapping food in, like bread. I also listened to radio stations, like Baghdad radio station, which regularly broadcasted masters and doctoral defenses. And I was writing letters for my family members which they would send to their relatives who were traveling, but my choice to study Arabic in university was due to the lack of majors at the College of Education at that time, as I joined QU in 1973. After graduation, I continued to learn more and specialize in Arabic, and through my work at the Center, we were in contact with the old generation of Qataris, who were the main resource in our research.
How did your journey as a language researcher turn into a researcher of the Qatari environment?
In 1984, this farm was bought to grow vegetables and dates in it, but we had a lot of difficulties in that. First, the farmland contained a lot of rocks. Secondly, its soil contains a high percentage of salt and tends to desertify. Thirdly, its groundwater is extremely saline, all of which make it difficult to grow vegetables in it. It is also challenging to revive farmland where all these constraints have come together, but this has not stopped us, and we have tried, to our best ability, to grow any kind of plant that would survive in these conditions. We were able to grow dates and sidr (Ziziphus spina-christi), and some leafy vegetables. In 1997, we started working on restoring and reviving the farm. At that time, Qatar was witnessing a rapid period of urbanization, which, unfortunately, reflected negatively on its environment, causing dredging of land and its wildlife. And so, we began our attempts to preserve our country’s wild plants. The first plant that caught my interest was the shafallah (Caper bush), with which I was connected culturally and emotionally. It is a first-class therapeutic plant that can also be consumed as food. There were areas known as shafallhiat that had an abundance of many kinds of it: shafallhiat arbeed, shafallhiat Al-oqda, shafallhiat umm theniyatain, and aba shafallah. All these have been dredged because the Al Shamal highway would be built on them, and so would other main roads. So, I reached out to the people responsible for building those projects and informed them of the environmental disaster it would be to remove all these shafallahs. I suggested to them building bridges that would pass over those plants so we could preserve this legacy, which is considered a food, medicine, and an integral part of Qatar’s ecosystem. Shafallah is rich in nutritional value and may be used to prepare certain dishes and beverages and can be added to recipes to aid in cooking meat and in digestion in the stomach. Also, its buds are famously used in making pickles. It contains some medicinal properties, too, for example, if its leaves are dried and powdered, the powder can be used as toothpaste. shafallah is a very beneficial plant that we must preserve. Unfortunately, the response I received from them was that the design of the project had been sent to the stakeholders for implementation and would not change. And so, I started to plant and grow shafallah on our farm, and I continued to harvest its buds, flowers, fruit, leaves, and seeds wherever I found it. I stopped buying any imported shafallah or using them in my house but relying entirely on what we grow locally, all of which are personal efforts to preserve this plant. These efforts are also evidence of my interest in Qatar’s land and my deep love for everything related to it, and this has evolved into interest in other plants, seasonal or long-lived Qatari plants and trees, as well as the many Qatari trees that people use to plant in their home. I don’t think I’ve gone from being a researcher in linguistic documentation to a researcher in Qatari plants, nor do I think that I’ve changed my field of research. Plants also have a linguistic aspect, such as their scientific name and the name given to them by the Qatari people. My relationship with any plant is also based on linguistic research. For example, while working with shafallah, I researched about it and found out that it has many other names in Arabic: Al-kabar, al-asaf, and al-lasaf, but in Qatar, we call it al-shafallah. Once I found an old Arabic book mentioning it, they described it as a food that helps in digestion. So whatever research topic I am concerned with, I am also researching it from the perspective of language. I am looking at what has been said about the subject in Qatar and in ancient Arabic books, because words are used in a particular context for a reason. Research into the use of certain words by society in a particular social context reveals the depth of that society’s culture.
What motivated you to enter the world of agriculture and plant protection?
The first reason is my love for Qatar and its plants. Secondly, I noticed that our land has been losing its plants. Many older people in Qatar used to say that Qatar was rich in green. And while working with growing and preserving shafallah, I came across other plants that may be vulnerable to extinction. In 1997, my late husband, Khamis Bin Mohammed Bin Khamis Al-Sulaiti, started a reservation for al-fag’a (desert truffle). He was the first Qatari electric engineer who graduated from a university in England. He began work on the farm by collecting lots of seeds of wild plants of Qatar, but he first tried to solve the farmland issues. He had to remove the big rocks out of the land, then change the soil altogether, and build waterfalls and tanks to collect and store rainwater. After the success of this experience, we started to expand the farm, and it reached more than ten thousand km2. In 2012, he published a book about the ways to grow al-fag’a in Qatar, which he wrote while being on a long journey with illness and treatment. With time, we had a large collection of seeds of wild plants of Qatar, so we started planting them in the reservation and the farm because a lot of those wild plants got run over by cars or were cut to be used to fuel the fire. In 2000, we established a greenhouse called Samrat Khattaf, named after a lone samr tree (Acacia tortilis) that can be found near the reservation. We started planting trees like awsaj (Lycium shawii), samr, garat (Acacia nilotica), and bamber barri (Cordia sinensis). The later people did not know it existed, and others thought it produced poisonous fruits, but we were able to prove otherwise by growing the tree and gifting its fruits to our family and friends. We also gifted seedlings to people to plant in their homes to protect this tree from extinction as it was becoming rare with only three trees found in Hazm Al Bambra. We might have gifted around 1000 seedlings to date, but I rest assured now knowing that it is no longer an endangered plant. We were able to make the tree known in Kuwait, too, they planted it there, and it is known there as the Qatari bamber.
Do you do any activities to educate and spread awareness about Qatari indigenous plants?
I am keen to share my knowledge with others and educate society about our plants teaching the current generation and the kids in school about it. I do this by collaborating with schools through social meetups and social media platforms. Usually, schools invite me to talk about the environment with their students. In these workshops and talks, I make sure to make them as interactive as possible by bringing seedlings with me to them. Children need to interact with the plant, see it up close, touch it, and study it to familiarize themselves with it as those plants and the child belong to the same land. And those plants were created by Allah for the benefit of the people. I also explain the different names of the plants, for example, what is its name in Qatari dialect and what is it called in standard Arabic and discuss any similarities or differences in terminology. I believe that educating the next generation falls within my social responsibility, and I naturally love to teach and share my knowledge. Countries flourish when intergenerational knowledge and experiences are shared. I believe that education expands beyond educational institutions and could be delivered via social media platforms, especially since the youth are more active on these platforms. I have understood the importance of those platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram. So, we created accounts for the reservation on those platforms. We also launched a few initiatives to plant trees, and in late 2017, I created a group where we share and discuss what we know about planting and growing trees, wild or house plants, and share solutions. We also try to contact any entities interested in planting and growing trees to share our expertise with them. For example, we contacted Ashgal to advise them not to plant some imported plants that do not fit well into our ecosystem and may cause harm to our plants. One prime example of this is the conocarpus tree, which is a lovely green tree, but its waste can be harmful to the plants and the soil because it can salinize the soil. Its roots can run deep under for more than 50 km, which negatively affects the plants around it. Alhamdulillah, Ashgal responded to our concerns, and conocarpus is forbidden from being planted in Qatar. Unfortunately, it is still widespread in some farms. This is a real issue because we invest money and import these plants from outside, and we think they are beautiful, but they turn out to be the enemy of our land and its plants. Another example is al-oshr (Caltropis procera), which some people consider having medicinal properties, but it produces a white sap when its twig is broken, and that white liquid can cause blindness if it gets into the eyes. Such plants require experts to take care of them, but it would be wiser not to import such plants that do not belong to Qatar’s ecosystem. In the cultural and social field, I was holding a family gathering in the public garden in my neighborhood. We met every Monday evening after Maghrib prayer until after the isha prayer. In those meetings, we urged the families to participate and research the social history of Qatar by asking a question every week. We encouraged them to find the answer to the question by asking their family members. We would also do competitions where one family would compete against another family. In one of the meetings, we launched a competition for the best paper airplane, with the condition that all family members need to participate in making that airplane. And to make them recognize the benefit of our wild plants and what we can produce out of them, I once asked them to try a pickle made from local shafallah, and another that was imported so that they can taste and see the difference between the two. In these types of activities, we were able to foster the love for knowledge in children, as well as love for the country they belong to. All these are individual efforts, as it is rare that ministries or other organizations approach us for collaborations. In reality, most of the time, I am the one who approaches ministries or organizations when I hear that someone is mistreating the wild plants and the environment. I believe it is my social duty, and I also love Qatar so much that I cannot stand by and do nothing when I hear that someone is mistreating the wild plants and the environment.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
The biggest challenge we face as a wildlife reserve that aims to preserve the wild plants of Qatar is the lack of environmental awareness among construction companies and their lack of appreciation of the land of Qatar and its ecosystem. For example, they do not transfer the plants they remove from project sites to other sites with a similar environment as what the plants are used to. Instead, the plants are thrown in the garbage, so those projects are destroying our environment. Construction companies should be held accountable, and they should be responsible for preserving the wildlives they encounter in their project sites and transferring those plants to another site. Suppose we wanted to study the negative effects of urbanization on our environment. In that case, we will not be able to do so because we do not have any documents indicating how construction companies deal with these plants. In addition to that, we lack sufficient statistics on the number of plants in Qatar in the past decades so that we can compare and try to intervene and save any plant that may be endangered. Another challenge we face is the disregard of some members of the Qatari community towards its own plants. So, we see public gardens and home gardens full of imported plants, although these plants do not belong to this land. This negatively affects local projects that try to preserve the environment, such as our reservation, because companies do not work with us. Most of our customers are individuals who are interested in preserving the environment and its natural components. As an environmental activist, I argue that we shouldn’t be growing in our land that does not belong to it naturally, as it might affect the soil negatively. I also believe that more effort is needed to educate society about planting our wild Qatari plants in homes, farms, and public gardens so that future generations get the chance to know them and interact with them.
What achievement of yours do you cherish the most?
One time, news reached me that a construction company was planning to turn Ben Ghannam island (Purple island) into a peninsula. They were going to create a road connecting the land with the island by landfill to make it easy for tourists to reach the island. The company was using construction waste to landfill the sea, which meant that the adverse environmental effects of using the waste of construction were going to be extended into sea life. I also could not understand why such an old and well-known island was being turned into a peninsula. So, I launched a campaign on Twitter with pictures showing what was happening on the site. I also contacted Qatar Tourism and told them about the environmental disaster that this project will cause. The island is famous as an island, and it should stay so. Alhamdulillah, they listened to me and removed the waste. Instead, they built a bridge to make it easy for the tourists to reach the island.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Hold on tightly to our social relations and our connection to each other. Women in Qatar have always been known to be an active part of society and make decisions. They were the mothers who raised the divers whose great stories we hear. If we think about the social situation during pearl diving, where men would sail and spend about four months away from home, the assumption would be that society would fall apart. This did not happen because women took care of the community and filled any social or economic gaps. I personally know an old lady who helped women during child labor, took care of them and played a great role in repairing relationships. She would also provide loans to women and men who needed them. Qatar is filled with women like her. This is what women in Qatar achieved. I believe today’s Qatari women can do the same and are able to fulfill their social responsibilities to the fullest.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmed.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.