The “Cast” of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al Hosn

The “Cast” of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr al Hosn


The Qasr al Hosn Festival was a ten-day community exhibition organized by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and held at the site of fort Qasr al Hosn, the city’s oldest building. Celebrating the history of the fort—which was built in 1761 and later became the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family—and the heritage  of the Emirates following from this iconic structure, the festival boasts many pieces of material culture: traditional objects, structures, foods, and animals.

Perhaps the most prevalent, and the most puzzling, however, were the scores of people who have been appointed to work as the festival’s “cast.” While groups of festivalgoers wandered the old-timey souks, traced circles in the sand atop well-groomed horses and camels, and queued up for theatrical presentations, the cast of Qasr al Hosn performed. Some seemed in another world, focused solely on their handicrafts—among others, two men build a large dhow ship with resinous nails while a third carves palm wood into pieces for a smaller fishing boat; women in leather burkhas wove baskets and carpets with their skillful, henna-blackened fingers; and a group of fisherman sat in a circle, singing old Arabic sea shanties around a pile of wicker fishing nets. Not far away was a full bridal house, complete with a traditional Emirati “bride” and a gaggle of young bridesmaids, dancers with colorful dresses and hair that reached to the center of their backs. Young Emirati men, decked out in old policemen’s uniforms with heavy fake rifles and dusty brown keffiyeh, strolled the festival grounds. These cast members were consciously assembled, like objects in a museum, to both create and communicate a sense of Abu Dhabi’s material cultural heritage, grown from the white washed walls of the old stone fort.

Qasr-al-Hosn-Fest-QR-CodesPart of this distinction between person and object—even human “objects”—has to do with the other roles that people fulfill at the festival. Not everyone became an object. Each participant wore an identification tag with one of three distinctions—“Volunteer,” “Event Staff,” or “Cast.” While the cast was responsible for representing traditions of Emirati culture through certain kinds of performance (weaving, singing, crafting, storytelling, simply looking traditional), it was the staff and volunteers who interacted with the festival’s ticketholders. As I entered the festival, I was soon greeted by a young Emirati teen with a red and green armband from Takatof, a volunteer organization in the UAE. This young man, and later a group of knowledgeable high school–age Emirati girls, showed me around the various stalls, booths, and craft areas, explaining each tableau we approached—who the people inside were, what they were doing or making, and how the objects around them functioned.

Contributing to the need for mediation was the language barrier; if I spoke Arabic, I would have been able to understand the stories of the old marine storyteller. But as festival photographers snapped shots of men playing the rababa or building a dhow ship, it was easy to see that these performers were aware of their role as a spectacle of national tradition. Emphasizing this fact were the QR codes placed next to each “scene,” giving smart phone users easy access to these explanations without human contact—in most cases, one was not even required to step inside a building, much less speak to the people inside the tableaux. It was as if observers were expected to treat the cast merely as pieces in a museum, and each exhibit was carefully crafted to put us in the position of passive observers.

Some cast members were hired because of the skills they have—skills that were once an integral part of Emirati life and are now regarded as “artifacts.” The elderly fishermen, for example, weaving fishnets and drying fish in the marine area of the festival, once fed the Emirati community, and now they are “objects” used to demonstrate a historic method of subsistence. As we passed through the souk area, I saw plastic packets of dried fish at one booth, sold by a fresh-faced young Emirati man in national dress. The dried fish was once a staple of the Emirati diet, the souk vendor told me, explaining the various types of fish and their prices. As such, the fishermen would have been active participants in the economy of everyday food production. Now these men only represent daily life; they illustrate elements of Emirati culture that the Emirati girls who showed me around have never experienced. At another booth, vendors sold brightly colored woven cell phone covers. These, I saw later, were also created at the festival, this time by women weaving on a traditional loom. The fishermen and weavers were carefully chosen aspects of the past that my Emirati guides don’t actually remember—their daily lives are presumably not “traditional” enough to be displayed at the festival. So these products, the dried fish and iPhone accouterments, are tools used to remember the past while also repackaging it—literally—to serve the interests of the present.

The traditional Emirati policeman was another kind of human object. Unlike most of the other cast members, these men were mobile, found not only near the model of the police station, but also wandering the festival areas, fake rifles slung across their khaki-clad shoulders. Their minty green and dark maroon Land Rovers were interspersed throughout the heritage site in every area but the marine section, reminding us that the Qasr al Hosn was initially a watchtower and a fortress. The old-style policemen were not too far removed from today’s policemen, and while I don’t think these actors were cast to actually police the festival, they function as crowd control simply by playing the part. By patrolling the festival like policemen would have done, and by placing their trucks in the midst of the crowds, these “police” became objects that both represented order and created order. Just the presence of these men as objects was enough to create a sense of culture that not only represents what is historical, but reinforces present structures.


Using these people—the cast—as objects of material culture helps to serve the interests of the present but may also distort the image of a not so distant past. Actors in other historical reenactments—like Fort Ticonderoga, Jamestown, or Gettysburg, in the United States—are employed to make history come alive for a population that has no first-hand memory or experience of it. Visitors are led among historic rooms containing historic chairs upholstered with historic fabrics, encouraged to try their hand at historic techniques like churning butter, and entertained by performances of historic practices or events. It’s fun to plunge into the past, drawing parallels and comparisons between your life and the ones enacted by the cast with the knowledge that, unlike the American settlers, you can drive home in an air-conditioned car. In contrast, objects at the Qasr al Hosn festival were presented as “historic,” but the history in this case is so recent that it has living subjects—some of the festival’s fishermen are actually fishermen, rababa players actually play the rababa, and traditional coffee is still drunk from traditional coffee pots. This presentation of history, still remembered by some, is different than a 2013 reenactment of the American Revolution because here in Abu Dhabi, we are not looking at the past from a vantage point 250 years in the future. The people and practices showcased at the festival are part of the Emirati heritage, and part of a culture that can not and should not yet be relegated to a dusty box in the attic, or the quaint observations of the historically minded tourist. The Qasr festival put people on display to offer snapshots of a not-too-distant history and remind us of the need to remember the roots of a culture. In doing so, however, it raises the question: do these human “heritage objects” bring the past closer to us, or push it further away?

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

The map of Saint Andrew’s Church shows the nationalities of the groups that use space within the compound every Friday. The primary day of worship is Friday, rather than Sunday, to fit with the city’s Friday-Saturday weekend schedule. At Saint Andrew’s, several religious Christian groups (over 40 different congregations, from several different countries and sects) coexist in one limited space, and one can hear the adhan from the mosque next door as people file out of midday Church service, speaking many languages and mingling in the courtyard. The map tries to convey not only the volume and diversity of people who use this space, but also the way that this Christian compound skillfully blends into the urban fabric of its predominantly Islamic host country.

All of the maps that we have presented in this series attempt to capture a fleeting, individual experience, and in doing so make an argument about some aspect of Abu Dhabi not necessarily considered in “official” maps. If you were to map the city, what would you include? What would you leave blank? Let us know in the comment section below.

[Maps of St. Andrew’s Church by Sanyu Kisaka, Sachi Leith, and Meike Radler. Click on any picture to enlarge. Use left and right arrows on keyboard to go forwards and backwards.]


Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 2

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 2

We continue our progression on unorthodox maps of Abu Dhabi. Check out part one here.

While the maps in the first series focused on physical spaces, the material things they contain, and the transactions that happen within them, this second set of maps takes a slightly different approach to concentrate on the people that occupy these spaces.

Though allocation of space plays a significant role in shaping any urban environment, it is always important to think about the people who inhabit this environment when venturing to represent it. How could you describe New York City, for example, without the flow of people in and out of the subways, without the buskers on the street, or without the teeming masses in Times Square? How could Paris be painted without the chaos of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, or the crowds browsing the bouquinistes along the Seine? What is Buenos Aires without the Argentine street tango, Tokyo without its Harajuku girls, or Mumbai without its many vendors hawking spicy chaat and syrupy sweets? Abu Dhabi, similarly, is more than just its architecture. The flow of people through Abu Dhabi’s urban landscape is what brings it to life, and though the traffic patterns can change, the movement persists.

The maps of the Family Park, near the Corniche, record the people and activities observed there, showing the fluctuations in the demographic usage of this public space. This mapping process, unlike a more “objective” map, captures some of the lived experience of the park at various times of day. At some points during the day, the park lived up to its name, and there were many families engaged in leisure activity and sport; at other times, it was largely empty or occupied primarily by individuals. This map shows the ways in which this “family park,” regardless of its official name, is appropriated and domesticated to fit the needs of the surrounding community.

By representing Abu Dhabi, or aspects of it, in unconventional ways, these maps lend meaning to the metropolis. Though they may not be as typically “accurate” as something like Google Maps, they speak to the feeling of a briefly lived experience, looking beyond scientific exactitude and official designations to find meaningful patterns hidden within the urban space.

[Cllick on the images below to enlarge them.]


family-park-2 famliy-park-3


 [Maps of the Family Park by Gabrielle Garcia, Krushika Patankar, and Leah Reynolds]

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 1

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 1

Think about a map. Think about how many times you consult a map, or use GPS, or depend on a landmark to find your way. Maps give us direction and put locations in context, emphasizing certain things more than others—usually transit routes or major tourist attractions. We could even say that maps are representations of a collective reality: in some ways, maps create the places they mean to represent. A map of a city, in other words, becomes the city. Take a look at any standard map of your home city. What do you see in that constructed city, and what is left invisible?

To make a map, one must oversimplify; things are by necessity left out in the process. Most traditional maps, in their quest for objectivity or scientific exactitude, sacrifice representing the lived, sensory experience of a place—an inevitably subjective experience. Recently, there has been a push to create maps that capture this sensory experience, prioritizing emotions over science. Radical and affective cartographies are those that subvert the traditional conventions of cartography and place importance on subjective descriptors to create maps that are not meant to be objective, but are meant to show a specific quality of a place during a specific time.

This alternate cartography was the aim for students in Dale Hudson’s Fall 2012 class, “Maps.” Students mapped the city according to subjective considerations, in an attempt to give Abu Dhabi more meaning—to transform it into a “place” rather than just a “space.” Unlike mere “spaces,” a “place” has personal, subjective meaning, because it is tied to the memory of a sensory or emotional experience. A map depicting “place” therefore aims to tell a story, and to transfer the memories of the cartographer to the map user. Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which the author compiles several seemingly disparate descriptions of imagined “invisible cities” that ultimately serve to describe his home city, Venice, these maps are an attempt to expose some of the “invisible cities” that exist in Abu Dhabi—representations that together help to give a more varied collage of perspectives on the city, instead of just the one you’d find in a tourist map.

The maps that we will present in this series examine such different locales as fish markets, the restaurants, parks, and churches. All attempt to capture a fleeting, individual experience, and in doing so make an argument about some aspect of Abu Dhabi not necessarily considered in “official” maps.

In Part 1, we present maps of the fish market at Al Mina Port and the restaurants inside an Electra Street superblock. (Click on a map to enlarge it.)







[Maps by Corey Meyer, Robert Moroch, and Anthony Murray, Nam Nguyen]




[Map by Alberto Manca, Rory McDougall, Haley Smith, and Luka Vasilj]

Manifesting “Multidisciplinarity”

Manifesting “Multidisciplinarity”


“Multidisciplinary” is, to me, one of the most enticing pieces of educational jargon there is. As someone who has been described as chronically indecisive, I have a hard time keeping my interests within isolated fields of study, and the word “multidisciplinary” is like a shining beacon of hope. Sure, I think, I can study science and literature and art and economics, and someday I’ll be able to mash them together into a tailor-made career that I will enjoy for the rest of my life! But when reality hits me, as it so often does, like a record-breaking skydiver at 833.9 mph, I’m sure that the Renaissance woman is irrelevant these days and that I’ll be living in a cardboard box for the rest of eternity. Who in the real world applies “multidisciplinary” to everyday life?

Angela Palmer, that’s who.

Angela Palmer embodies “multidisciplinary,” and she plays the part with style. A Scottish artist who began her career as a journalist, Palmer merges her MFA with, among other things, biology, archaeology, film, ecology, history, literature, music, physics, and anatomy. But it is her career in journalism, she says, that informs the way she approaches each project—the output is a journey more than a static work of art. “The end product is just part of it,” she says. “It’s really about the story.” It can be tedious to hear someone discuss the minutiae of their own work, but Palmer tells these stories with such selfless excitement that one can’t help but be intrigued by both work and artist. “Art is about asking; asking, questioning, challenging, breaking rules, but driven always by curiosity. Curiosity underpins everything I do. Was it a successful piece of art? I don’t know, but for me it satisfies a curiosity.”

One of her most recent works is a sculpture, on 111 sheets of glass, of a child mummy from the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Using CT scans of the mummy, she was able to recreate an image of the body, slice by slice, without disturbing his wrappings . From this, scientists were able to reproduce a cast of his skeleton, determine his age, and make discoveries about his teeth and bone structure. She’s performed the same process on herself, author Robert Harris, and the heads of horses, cows, and pigs. 

Accompanying the sculpture is a short documentary film from her trip to the mummy’s hometown and tomb (just outside of Cairo), and art pieces constructed from linen wrappings and natural dyes.

Another project, entitled Ghost Forest, involved transporting ten enormous tree stumps from the Ghanaian rainforest to the middle of Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London. Palmer’s aim was to promote awareness of climate change and responsible forestry. The massive stumps stood looming around Nelson’s Column, which stands 50 metres, or 169 feet, tall, the height that many of these trees would have been. The trees were moved to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference; sat for two years in the front lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History; and have now found their final resting place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The entire project has been declared carbon neutral, its emissions offset by a company called ClimateCare working to introduce efficient stoves in Ghana, the trees’ birthplace.

“What staggers me,” she marvels, “is that we have these problems in the world and so few artists are responding.”

Even on video, the project was breathtaking—the tangled roots are reminiscent of nerve endings, their silent and majestic presence among both natural and man-made landscapes a reminder of our own insignificant mortality; I can only imagine its power in real life.

“I’m not an activist,” she’s quick to say, “but I’m surprised.” When asked where she draws the line between activist and artist, Palmer pauses. “I don’t see myself as an activist in that quite often with activists, they’re associated with one issue. And that’s a determining factor that underlines their activism. When I was in Copenhagen, I met a lot of activists, and they were very determinedly single-issue. Quite often they were just exhausted by their own activism, in trying to effect change. I’d never want the shackles of it, to be limited to a single issue. The environment does interest me, and I do think we have got a duty, as human beings, but I’m not a preacher, and I don’t exactly go about living in a very pure way. Purity just doesn’t exist in my case.”

And she’s so much more interesting for her impurities. They make her seem so … what’s the word?


[Images credit:]