Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

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).

camels

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

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.

A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?

A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.

The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.

Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.

Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE.  Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.

Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.

Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”

A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.”  A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.

A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.

A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.

A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”

My experience?

A wedding celebration.

An antique gramophone.

A prayer rug on the sand.

A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.

A man swinging an axe at a date palm.

A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.

A small boy holds a large falcon.

A smile with missing teeth.

A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!

An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.

A fur-lined abaya.

A woman in a burqa atop a camel.

A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.

Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.

Children with gold tangled in their hair.

 

You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.

A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.

Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

 

 

 

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