Complex Made Simple

Al Dhafra Festival: A school of heritage and desert culture for younger generations

More than an annual celebration of the Bedouin life, Al Dhafra Festival has turned into a school of heritage and culture for visitors and Emirati younger generations. Here the door is open to learn about the desert, its people, the way of life, the different traditions, and the glorious past. And, on the official site of the Festival the past meets the present to lay ground for a brighter future.

The vision behind the organisation of the Festival appears to be unique, forward-thinking, and sensible. Held in Madinat Zayed in Al Gharbia (The Western Region) in Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra, which is organised by the Cultural Programs and Heritage Festivals Committee from the 14th to the 28th of December, has been marked since its launch by the remarkable presence of children and youth in the various activities and competitions, and in almost all sites of the Festival.

This year, the Higher Organising Committee stepped up efforts to draw more children and youths as it chose to hold the Festival in a period that falls within the school and university holidays. It has also prepared a whole programme for students and children to have fun and at the same time contribute to the Festival activities and events.

Young people and children are here not only to attend, have fun and watch. The vision of the organisers consists in transforming this younger generation into an active player, capable of giving impetus to the efforts of heritage preservation while learning and discovering the various aspects of the Bedouin culture and heritage.

Social Cohesion: From Father to Son

Al Dhafra Festival is a unique platform that displays the qualities of the Emirati society, and more precisely the Bedouin society marked by unity and cohesion. The noble values of the ancestors are transmitted from father to son and from mother daughter in a prudent and judicious way. Al Dhafra Festival offers a perfect environment and opportunity for the process of the diffusion and communication of the past legacy by drawing all generations, old and young, to one site.

At the several camps erected by Bedouin tribes and families in the arid desert of the Gate of the Empty Quarter, grand-fathers, fathers and children sit together for long hours, chatting, telling stories and tales of the past, and sharing special and warm moments. Each family or tribe has its elder, who always sits in the middle. The discussions usually include anecdotes, accounts of past experiences, and information about the desert, the camels, the falcons and the various aspects of desert life.

Ahmad, a 19-year-old Emirati, said, “The notion of time disappears here. You never get bored and you always learn. I love to listen to elders. They always have something to teach and tell. They are a boundless source of knowledge that deserves our highest respect and esteem.”

At the camps, family and tribe members compete to show their hospitality to any visitor. For them, it is a question of pride and honour. Hospitality itself turns into one of the Festival’s competitions: Who is the most generous, ready to lend a hand, and welcoming? When a visitor comes, the youth and children are the first to greet. They invite him to join their gathering, offer coffee, tea, Qaraq (tea with milk), dates and lugeymat (a deep fried ball of pancake batter, rolled in sesame seeds and drizzled with date syrup). Then, they present him to the elder. Any guest is treated like a member of the family or tribe.

Hamza, a 12-year-old, said, “Here in camps we share roles. Every one of us has a job to do. We watch over the camels that we brought to participate in the Camel Mazayna. We sit together and talk. For me, Al Dhafra and the desert camps are the best school ever. I learn a lot in here and I am always ready to learn more.”

Away from camps, children and youth are present in all competitions and events. They have become a faithful public of Al Dahfra Festival. At the Camel Mazayna, children and youth occupy the majority of seats, they come with their families and tribes to encourage and cheer their camels.

Adbullah, a 9-year-old wearing a Kandoura (white robe) and holding a Khaizarana (multi-use cane), said, “I want to become a member of the Judging Committee in the future. Camels are beautiful. My father is a camel owner. Judges know many things about camels, but I think our camels are the best. We are going to win, I am quite sure.”

At the official site of the Falcon competition, children and youth are also present. Some young people are already falconers, and the children there are eager to learn. Every father brings his sons, no matter how young they are.

Mohammad, an Emirati falconer from Dubai and a father of a 4-year-old boy said, “I bring him with me to every competition. I am so happy that I succeeded in transmitting my passion to him. He loves falcons and wants to learn. But, I remain very careful. I want him to learn everything but at the right time.”

Continuity of Art and Tradition: From Mother to Daughter

At the Traditional Market, grand-mothers and mothers do not come alone. Daughters are present in all the 180 shops of Emirati women. Al Dhafra Festival has given all these women an excellent opportunity to join efforts and work together to prepare the products, display them in an arty and creative way, and sell them.

Um Ahmad, who owns a shop which sells dates and date-derived products said, “We have a small farm in Liwa, in which we grow date palms. Since early age, I have been working on dates packaging and all products made of dates. We have Khallas, Dabbas and Shishi. My mother taught me the various techniques to preserve dates, and the best methods to use them. We have fresh and dried dates, syrup, and paste. I have two daughters who help me at home and here in the Market. They learned many things.”

The desire to give becomes more meaningful when it comes along the younger generation’s desire to take. Al Dhafra Festival and its organisers have always been keen on this culture of sharing and working together for the best of the Emirati culture and heritage. The concept consists in preserving the Bedouin culture while progressing towards the future, and is inspired by the words of Late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (God Bless His Soul): “I don’t want to bring the Bedouin to the city, but to bring culture to the Bedouin.”

“We owe this social cohesion and unity to the wise vision of Late Sheikh Zayed, to His Highness Sheikh Khalifa, and to all our rulers. We have been taught to remain united, share knowledge, and preserve our culture in which we take pride. Al Dhafra Festival is a unique occasion that bring us together, and en exceptional platform to market our products and promote them,” said one of the daughters of Um Ahmad.

Once inside the Traditional Market, a plethora of products, bright colours and nice smells invite the tourists and local visitors to explore the different shops. Perfumes, antiques, dates’ varieties, honey, traditional clothes, and other products on display offer a glimpse into the history of the UAE, and the Gulf region.

The Market is a microcosm of the larger Arab Bedouin society. The major aim behind its creation consists in summarizing hundreds of years of desert life into one place and one space. This mission may seem impossible, yet the impossible may happen with determination and the resolve.

Umm Mubarak, who began learning the traditional dress and cloth making at the age of 15, said, “We learned from our ancestors, and older generations. In our craft, we use the same old patterns and criteria, but we also add a new touch. Our goal is not strictly material. We do seek to promote our traditional attire and do believe that the responsibility to preserve customs and traditions lies on our shoulders. We remain determined keep our heritage in our hands.”

Participation of the Vocational Education Development Centre

Students from the Vocational Education Development Centre (VEDC) participate in Al Dhafra Festival for the third time. Their role and tasks have developed over the past years.

“We are trained in security procedures and we work alongside the police forces in checking the passes and ensuring access to only people with the required authorisation and badges. Our efforts aim at helping the police provide a better service for both visitors and participants in Al Dhafra,” said one student who was standing near the main entrance of the Mazayna.

The VEDC students also help in the handling of the camels at the Mazayna, and some of them are chosen to lend a hand at the VIP section. Al Dhafra Festival offers these students a chance to explore and be exposed to their heritage and culture. They learn the best methods and techniques of the past from the school staff, camel handlers and elders.

VEDC is a boarding institute that caters for Emiratis who have an interest in vocational studies rather than mainstream academic education, enabling them to become citizens who will play an active role in contributing to the UAE culture, society and economy.

The Children’s Village

The best way to teach children is to teach them when they are having fun. The Organising Committee of Al Dhafra Festival has been aware of this fact when it created the Children’s Village and chose the Traditional Market as a permanent location.

Bringing children to a site where traditional products of all sorts are displayed on a daily basis appears to be a perceptive idea. There, children can watch, touch and learn about the different crafts and materials and at the same time enjoy their time.

At the Village young girls of all ages sit with older women and are trained in different traditional crafts like Sadu (a form of weaving for the production of fine furniture and decorative accessories) henna, kajuja, coffee preparation, and the making of coffins and mats with palm leaves. Others sit and read, or paint at the Children’s Library. Entertainment is also on the menu with characters like the Dabdoub (bear) and daily cultural competitions.

Leila, a 10 year-old Emirati girl said, “I am having a very good time here in the Village, I draw and read. I also learn Sadu because I love the craft and the colours. I come with my family on a daily basis. Each year, I wait eagerly for Al Dhafra. Once the Festival comes, everything changes. We play, dance and have fun.”

Also at the Village, children can play at slides and ride camels. They can buy sweets, pop-corn, lugeymat and enjoy all the things they love.

“I come with my brother and father every day. We meet friends here. This is the best Festival in the entire world. Before coming, I put on my best traditional dress. I want to look good. We will go to buy some dates, and then my dad will take me with him to ride the camel,” said Ali, a 6 year-old.