DUBAI, UAE – As we walked through the historical collections of books, manuscripts, periodicals, and rare reference materials at the Juma Al-Majid Center for Culture and Heritage in the growing Arab metropolis of Dubai (with the world’s second busiest airport), I kept thinking of a recent book written by my sister, Laura Nader, who teaches anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. A nuanced writing titled Culture and Dignity: Dialogues Between the Middle East and the West (Wiley-Blackwell), it differentiates between the stereotype and reality of East-West relations and how damaging and costly such filters have been since the Crusades.
Room after room at the Juma Al-Majid Center contains materials reflecting the cultural heritage of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. One room is filled with ancient and modern Persian books and tracts of poetry, art and maps. Another room is devoted to the stunning varieties of calligraphy. A third room is filled with workers silently preparing pages of fragile texts for digitalization. The Al-Majid Center’s reading rooms are open to scholars who can stay as long as they need and use these resources freely without prior application. There are about one million books and other literary selections in this remarkable gathering.
When I asked the founder of this institution and many other charities and schools, Juma Al Majid, whether there had been any mishandling of the materials at the Center due to the lack of restrictions on access to the collections, he replied that yes, a couple of times, but it is still better to keep things simple and open.
Mr. Al Majid, now over 80-years-young, seems to have achieved his many accomplishments as a very successful businessman, creating more than 40 companies in engineering, retail, automotive and investment sectors, and as a leading operational philanthropist by keeping things focused, simple and forthright.
For example, his reverence for books of ancient vintage highlighted the problem of deteriorating pages in the Center’s growing international collection. So he developed the Al-Majid Restoration Machine which he gave as a gift to 40 cultural institutions in numerous countries.
He has many librarians and restoration specialists who are kept busy by the 150 acquisition experts searching, especially the Islamic world, for collections. One room is devoted to the private collections that the Center has acquired. Pictures of the original owners adorn the walls of the private collection room with expressions of gratitude.
Mr. Al Majid’s charities revolve around educational facilities where girls far outnumber the boys (educate the ladies first, even before the men, he explained, as the best way to transmit education to a society). He makes sure the needy students receive free education. The number of students in his schools is close to 10,000. The degrees range all the way through college and doctorate (PhD) degrees. His other charities address emergencies ranging from regular assistance and schools for the impoverished Palestinians (eg. thousands of tons of bread are baked in Turkey and sent to the West Bank and Gaza). He housed Kuwaiti refugees during the first Gulf War, and he has established schools in Dubai and in other Arab and Islamic countries.
All these charities and more are funded by the profits from his diversified businesses, which are run by managers, thus freeing him to spend his time collecting, preserving and making available to scholars the literary production of the people of the book – meaning the three major religions that originated in the Arab world.
Repeatedly, he stressed that the fundamental generator of human possibilities was education. As the son of a pearl diver, raised in a very modest community near the Persian Gulf, Mr. Al Majid blends the past, present and future in his planned activities. No withered ancient manuscript nor any futuristic technology fazes him, as a tour of his cultural center demonstrates. But his conversation always comes back to books, to education, to the fundamental verities of life which is “to help humanity.”
Prominently displayed in one corridor of the Center is the Mark Twain observation that “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” The Center’s work servicing or cooperating with libraries at universities and other institutions in Europe, Asia and Africa is expanding in many dimensions. (See www.al-majid.com.)
As we departed from the Center, Mr. Al Majid spoke of his plans to build a new library to consolidate the sprawling premise that now houses the collections and outreach staff. He already has proven his talent for recruiting talent in Dubai and other countries and in connecting with many unsung charitable institutions in the medical, educational, cultural and emergency assistance areas.
By his dynamic humanitarian networking, Mr. Al Majid has illuminated the civic culture of the Arab and Islamic worlds from the past to the present. It is tragic that Western government and Western media are so occupied with the activities of empires that their people are given so little knowledge of such historic cultures and their strivings for justice, freedom and dignity.