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