Past meets present at Al Dhafra Festival

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It’s more than just camels at the festival, it is a place where the old meet the young to pass on the Bedouin heritage and culture.

More than an annual celebration of Bedouin life, Al Dhafra Festival has turned into a school of heritage and culture for visitors and young Emiratis. It opens the door to the desert, its people and their way of life. It is a place where the glorious past meets the present to lay the ground for a brighter future.

Held in Madinat Zayed in Al Gharbia (the Western Region) in Abu Dhabi, the Al Dhafra Festival is organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee from December 14 to 28 and has been marked since its launch by the participation of children and youth in various activities and competitions.

This year, the organising committee stepped up efforts to draw more youngsters by holding the festival during 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 festival activities and events.

Al Dhafra Festival is a unique platform that displays the qualities of Emirati society, more precisely the Bedouin society which is marked by unity and cohesion. And the festival offers a perfect environment and opportunity for the process of communication by drawing all generations, the old and young, to one site.

At the camps erected by Bedouin tribes and families in the arid desert of the Gate of the Empty Quarter, grandfathers, fathers and children sit together for long hours, chatting, narrating stories and tales of the past, and sharing special 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, camels, falcons and 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 show their hospitality to visitors. 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, youth and children are the first to greet. They invite you to join their gathering, offer coffee, tea, Qaraq (tea with milk), dates and traditional sweets. Then, they present the guset to the elder. Any guest is treated like a member of the family or tribe.

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

Away from camps, youngsters are busy taking part in competitions and events. They have become the faithful audience of Al Dhafra Festival. At the Camel Mazayna, too, they occupy majority of the seats; they are there with their families and tribes to encourage and cheer their camels.

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

Youngsters are also present at the site of the Falcon competition. Some young people are already falconers, and the children there are eager to learn. Every father makes sure to bring his sons, no matter how young they are.

Mohammad, an Emirati falconer from Dubai and a father of a four-year-old boy, said: “I bring him with me to every competition. I am so happy that I succeeded in passing on 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.”

Grandmothers, mothers and daughters are attracted to the Traditional Market. The young daughters visit all the 180 shops run by Emirati women. The festival has given all these women an excellent opportunity to get together and prepare the products.

Um Ahmad, who owns a shop which sells dates and date products, said: “We have a small date farm in Liwa. Since an early age, I have been working with 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 have learned many things.”

The desire to give knowledge becomes more meaningful when it comes along with the younger generation’s desire to learn. 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 of preserving the Bedouin culture while progressing towards the future, and is inspired by the words of the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, “I don’t want to bring the Bedouin to the city, but bring culture to the Bedouin.”

“We owe this social cohesion and unity to the wise vision of the late Shaikh Zayed, to the President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 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 brings us together, and an 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 in various colours and tempting odours invite you. Perfumes, antiques, dates, honey, traditional clothes, and other products are on display. The market here becomes a microcosm of the larger Arab Bedouin society.

Umm Mubarak, who began learning 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 seek to promote our traditional attire and believe that the responsibility to preserve customs and traditions lies on our shoulders. We remain determined to keep our heritage in our hands.”

The Children’s Village at the Traditional Market is an excellent way to get children involved. Here, children can watch, touch and learn about the different crafts and materials and at the same time enjoy their time at the festival.

Girls of all ages sit with older women and are trained in traditional crafts like Sadu (a form of weaving for the production of fine furniture and decorative accessories) henna, coffee preparation, and the making of mats and even coffins 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.

Students from the Vocational Education Development Centre (VEDC) are participating in Al Dhafra Festival for the third time this year. 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 visitor passes and ensuring access only for people with the required authorisation and badges. Our efforts in helping the police provide a better service for both visitors and participants in Al Dhafra,” said one student.

The VEDC students also help in the handling of the camels at the Mazayna, and some are chosen to lend a hand in 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.

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