Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.
Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.
The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.
As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.
To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.
A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).
Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.
These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.
*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission
The Nile Project features musicians from all eleven countries in the Nile Basin. (Photo: The Nile Project)
I went to The Nile Project on October 29, thinking that I could watch the performance and eat my dinner at the same time. Five minutes in, I had tomato stains on my shirt. Ten minutes in, I nearly choked on a corn kernel. Fifteen minutes in, I dropped my fork, almost stabbed my left hallux, and gave up trying to finish my salad. After the concert, I left the East Plaza hungrier than I had been at the start, but feeling emotionally and mentally fulfilled.
Having read the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center’s description ahead of the performance, I understood that The Nile Project formed in 2011 as a musical response to water conflicts in the Nile Basin. The project brings together “musicians of all 11 Nile countries […] to empower university students around the world with the tools they need to make the Nile more sustainable,” the Arts Center’s webpage informed me further. Given The Nile Project’s lofty political aspirations, I went to Thursday’s performance expecting a concert that had the main goal of sending a message to the Nile countries fighting over water rights, but would also make me dance. For the first five minutes of the concert, that expectation seemed spot-on: The opening act had the slow, somber pace I expected. But after the first song, I witnessed a veritable explosion of sound and realized how incorrect my expectations about the performance had been. Instead of setting their message to the sad tune I expected, The Nile Project delivered an upbeat performance that celebrated the life and music of the Nile countries. I had prepared to hear music with a message that might make me dance; The Nile Project played dance music that also had a message.
The Nile Project sings in a dozen languages; I thought I at least spoke one of them, but my semester of Classical Arabic did not help me understand the Egyptian singer Dina el Wedidi. For those of us who didn’t understand the lyrics, the group conveyed a mood rather than a discernable message. As Kate Melville-Rea (NYUAD’18) put it when I asked her to help me get a sense of what the group’s lyrics mean: “It’s not art if everyone understands it. Once you know what they’re singing, it loses its power.” The Nile Project certainly has that power intact.
Were the members of The Nile Project to read this reaction (a hypothetical I would be flattering myself with if I thought it likely), they might feel they had failed to convey the message behind their music to me. Far from feeling let down, I want to congratulate them: Despite my utter ignorance about the subject and lyrics of their songs, they elicited a visceral response in me that I have not felt since Toshi Reagon performed Parable of the Sower at NYU Abu Dhabi earlier this fall.
“Euphoric” is what Jon Pareles of The New York Times called The Nile Project when they performed at Globalfest in February 2015. (Photo: Karsten Moran for The New York Times)
That parallel to Reagon’s performance says a lot about both the subject matter (water scarcity and conflict) and quality (mind-boggling) of the show The Nile Project put on at NYUAD last month. Despite playing to a jam-packed East Plaza, The Nile Project managed to keep their performance as intimate as if they sat on a half-circle of chairs in the confines of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Black Box Theater, capacity 150.
Using more instruments than I knew existed, playing complex rhythms that boggled the minds of people with far more musical talent than I have, and exuding a happiness that seems to defy the sobering reality of what they are singing about, The Nile Project gave a performance that left me wanting answers. How did the singer make that vocal hiccup? What was the name of that piece with the jazz saxophonist? Who sang which songs? What was the name of that feather mask? Why did it have to end so soon? I do not know the answer to any of those questions, nor would I want to. Instead of taking a palpable lesson from The Nile Project, I took a mood, an uplifting sense of possibility and collaboration.
A while ago, I wrote an article on Art and Home. Consider this piece a follow-up.
Few cities I have visited can pride themselves in having as cosmopolitan a cuisine as Abu Dhabi does. The city’s 1500+ cafés, restaurants, bars, and canteens serve a greater variety of food than I could ever hope to sample. But for all its sumptuous food outlets, Abu Dhabi can feel like a food desert for Scandinavians who yearn for a taste of home. That said, one oasis on Yas Island cooks up the food we so crave: more or less authentic Swedish meatballs.
Swedish meatballs may not look appetizing, but I cherished every bite, including the thirteenth ball the server gave me by mistake. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)
Save for McDonald’s perfectly geometric hamburger patties, no meat comes in as uniform a serving as IKEA’s 100% horse-meat-free balls doused in a supposedly Scandinavian gravy and served with a generous ladle of mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. It should scare me that the meatballs I ate in Abu Dhabi this Wednesday tasted and looked exactly like the ones I would buy whenever my family made our biannual pilgrimage to the IKEA outlet near Odense, Denmark. Assuming a truck driver drove directly from the factory in Källby which produces every meatball IKEA sells and took no detours, he would have to drive over 7,000 kilometers to reach the canteen on Yas Island. One would think the time it takes for the meatballs to arrive in Abu Dhabi would make them unpalatable and stale. With that fear in mind, I suppressed my cravings for Scandinavian food for four protracted months. When I caved last December, I realized that far from rendering the meat inedible, the voyage from Sweden to the U.A.E. does the balls well, tenderizing them like a steak under a cowboy’s saddle. Of course, four months of deprivation may have lowered my standards for what I accept as authentic Scandinavian food, or perhaps the Indian server gave me a particularly good dozen on that first visit. Whatever the reason I fell enamored with the canteen on Yas Island; I have made monthly trips to the blue and yellow colossus next to Yas Mall since December.
When I sneaked around the corner that lets shoppers dodge the upstairs labyrinth and headed to the canteen this Wednesday, I had gone almost fifty days without an IKEA fix. Needless to say, my cravings showed. I usually order one dozen of meatballs and a cup of coffee; that Wednesday, I ate a serving of roasted turkey on top of my usual order, and I finished the meal with two cups of coffee and a cinnamon roll, a veritable food orgy for 51 dirhams.
IKEA also serves food that does not come in perfect spheres. Here, roasted turkey with bread dumplings, carrots, Brussel sprouts, and lingonberry jam. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)
I cannot review the meatballs in a way that does justice to readers who do not know what it feels like to crave food not for the taste of it, but for the memories it contains. I can only say that if IKEA stopped serving heaven by the dozen, I would have no qualms turning vegetarian overnight. Though the taste always struck me as somewhere in the uncomfortable realm between mealy and meaty, I cling to IKEA’s meatballs, because Danes in Abu Dhabi do not have any other food to hang on to. (No, Danish pastries are not Danish; the French call them Viennoiserie (literally “things from Vienna”) for a reason.) For want of something better to cherish, or something actually from Denmark, I cling to the Swedish meatballs whenever I want to reconnect with the country I left behind. Although Danes mostly eat their meatballs in a clear soup dish that most people despise, IKEA meatballs come closer to an accurate representation of Danish cuisine, whether we like it or not.
If some medium told me four years ago that I would revere Swedish meatballs the way I do today, I would likely have laughed and brushed it off. Impossible. Faced with the choice between a spoonful of cod liver oil or a dozen meatballs, my younger self would have swallowed the liver oil to get through the torment as fast as he could. The 2013 horse meat scandal did not help open my mind to the wonders that IKEA serves in its canteens, either. I remember counting myself lucky, in retrospect, that I chose driving home hungry over eating at the canteen when my family and I visited the Odense outlet a year before the news broke.
What changed my mind? I wish I could attribute my conversion to something other than sheer deprivation, but I cannot. The pride which convinced me that I could go for a full semester before tasting Scandinavian food again proved misplaced. When I got over the shame of succumbing to eating the meatballs I once loathed, I grasped what I had gained by coming back to IKEA: a way to vicariously connect with my home. IKEA represents a synecdoche of Scandinavia and everything it stands for. The free flow of coffee for IKEA Family Card holders confirms that no other region in the world drinks as much coffee as the place I come from; the absence of waitstaff hints at the “minimalist” customer service Scandinavian restaurants offer; the wooden benches stir memories of the picnic-centered culture I know.
IKEA’s canteen will never win a Michelin star, or even a half-decent review on Zomato. For all but the most deprived Scandinavian expatriates, it remains an option to avoid. But for the few who learn how to cherish mediocre food that harkens back to “home” and much better meals, IKEA and its meatballs hold the countries we left behind within them.
Ninety-nine bird carcasses nailed to a ten-by-four feet plywood board by obscure Danish artist John Olsen. The adjacent room houses an exhibit of fetishism (nudism, infantilism, shamanism) in design but retains its infamy as the site of Marco Evaristti’s 2000 exhibit Helena (known colloquially as “the fish-in-blenders exhibit”) and an onlooker’s decision to liquidize a goldfish. Like its rival museums near Copenhagen and Aarhus, Trapholt built its reputation as one of Denmark’s finest contemporary art museums through its flirtation with scandal and contempt. But while its rivals all enjoy metropolitan audiences who would accept Olsen’s dead birds as art, Trapholt sits on the outskirts of Kolding, my hometown, with just under 70,000 inhabitants.
John Olsen’s Fuglekalligrafi (“Bird Calligraphy”), 2003. (Photo: Leif Bolding)
Koldingers have a two-dimensional take on art: if it has a frame, we call it “art,” and it the colors within that frame form a discernable motive, we call it “good art.” To us, cubism still seems like the products of artists who lacked the precision of skilled artists. If we knew what it meant, we might call ourselves a city of Stuckists. Conceptual artists must think of Kolding and its environs as a small-scale version of the Bermuda Triangle. Outside it lie several thriving museums that house radical conceptual arts exhibits; within it, only Trapholt has managed to stay afloat financially, a feat it could never have accomplished without the government’s generous endowment for the arts.
Given our disdain for what people from the capital call “conceptual art”, it makes sense that Koldingers have long preferred the city’s other museum: Koldinghus. Housed in a medieval castle complete with moats, watchtowers, and cannon-holed walls, Koldinghus displays the kind of art Koldingers want to see. Its permanent collection of Golden Age paintings, ceramics, and silverware has the immediacy we look for in art. We saw the three-hundred-year-old still life of a corn field in our high school textbooks on the Danish art canon, so we accept it as the ideal form of art. The velvet ropes that cordon off the exhibit housing Koldinghus’ most prized assets, viewable only by appointment and only by art historians, convinces us all the more that we are not just seeing artworks, but the very essence of Danish history.
Trapholt has no velvet ropes. They call it a museum policy, but Koldingers think the lack of security correlates to a lack of security-worthy art. Consider the comments of an elderly man whom I overheard asking a Trapholt receptionist “do you even have any paintings that are older than me?” when I visited this summer. His consternation when the receptionist replied that they do not have any conventional paintings at all shows the Kolding frame of mind – a frame which I shared until I left for high school.
Selection of chair postcards in Trapholt’s gift shop. (Photo: Hansen Ong).
Selection of chairs on display at Trapholt, summer 2014. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
Koldingers’ two-dimensional conception of art must wane with distance, because when we leave the Triangle of Death, it seems we learn to appreciate conceptual art. On our trips to Copenhagen and abroad, my family would visit museums we would never have gone near if we had stayed within the Kolding area. On our 2003 trip to London, we went to the Design Museum, the Tate Modern, and even the Museum of Contemporary Art! Of course, we still frowned at Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project and questioned whether a big lamp really constitutes art (one does not go from philistine to all-accepting art lover overnight), but we had shown a willingness to experience, and perhaps even appreciate, non-framed art.
As a family, we made glacial progress toward acceptance of contemporary art in the decade that followed the London epiphany, but when I left home for a Dutch boarding school in my junior year of high school, my progress gathered pace. Outside the tri-city area, I met people who not only tolerated non-framed art, but who appreciated it and even produced it. I took part in my first flash mob, dabbled with three-dimensional visual art, and spent my holidays traveling to museums which housed what my fellow Koldingers might deem “radical art.” At the same time, I suffered the signature malaise of the expat, homesickness, and the combination of my growing interest in radical art and my longing for the city that scorns such art produced in me a change I had not foreseen.
When I went home for fall break after just three months outside the Triangle of Death, I visited Trapholt of my own volition for the first time. That visit opened my eyes more than any visit to a foreign museum could have done, because I discovered far from the elitist retreat I had imagined it as, Trapholt welcomed believers in non-framed art from all walks of life. I did not find a coterie of the petty-bourgeois but a mixture of secretaries, farmers, shop owners, and even my high school art teacher.
The greatest shock of my visit came not from the heterogeneity of the audience, but from the diversity of media Trapholt had on display. Sure, Trapholt houses its fair share of disfigured, abstract sculptures, but interspersed between these uninterpretable forms I encountered ornate works of contemporary ceramic art, a photographic chronicle of The Rolling Stones by two noted Danish photographers, and a special exhibit featuring upcoming Danish fashion designers. When I came back the following summer, that same exhibit housed Nick Cave’s sound suits, the first exhibit in Trapholt’s history to feature velvet ropes on the artist’s insistence.
But to my surprise, I did not find the exhibit that would become my favorite in Trapholt’s main building; instead, I found it on the lawn, in an old summer home designed entirely by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. While the cottage seems bland at first sight, every single object in the home is nothing less than a work of art. Jacobsen designed everything, from the six mobile cubes that comprise the summer home to the silverware and the cupboards that hold it, and each item has entered the history of Danish design as well as a majority of Denmark’s households. To this day, his Seven Chair from 1958 epitomizes Danish design in its simplicity and is featured around most of the nation’s kitchen tables (or, rather, the IKEA knock-off at a tenth of the price of Jacobsen’s original does).
I absorbed the tour guide’s anecdotes to such an extent that I inhabited and took pride in them. One such anecdote about Jacobsen’s Ant Chair has since become the story I use to justify why I take pride in Danish chairs. When Jacobsen released the three-legged chair in 1952, it resonated across Europe’s design scene for the way it rethought the very concept of a chair. What designers everywhere did not anticipate, however, was the wobbly nature of the chair and the ensuing injuries chair aficionados sustained from falling off the chair. Embroiled in grievance lawsuits, Jacobsen insisted that the Ant Chair remain in production and summarily fired anyone who dared to suggest producing a four-legged variant. Not until safety inspectors at Novo Nordisk declared the three hundred three-legged Ant Chairs in their canteen unsafe and threatened to back out of a million-kroner deal did Jacobsen agree to produce a four-legged mutant chair. He retained his artist’s pride, though; to this day, Jacobsen’s manufacturer delivers four-legged Ant Chairs with an explicit proscription against displaying them in galleries or commercial showrooms.
The pride Jacobsen took in his original product echoes the prides Danes take in their design heritage and in their chairs. I come from a chair-crazed culture, where vintage Jacobsens often sell for over $100,000 and where museum gift shops sell scale replicas of Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, Swan Chair, Seven Chair, and (three-legged) Ant Chair. We might not recognize it from within, once we leave home, we realize that even in the country’s most philistine region, oases of art and chair fetishism remain.
The star of the show: Arne Jacobsen’s Myren (“Ant Chair”) (1952) (Photo: Trapholt)