- Get transported in time to see traditional jobs in the UAE
- Meet real-life craftsmen and craftswomen performing their skilled trade
- Organised every winter at Al Wathba, the Sheikh Zayed Festival features a mix of Emirati culture and modern day wonders
- There are 30 national pavilions where traders offer thousands of items for sale
- Grab some fashionable winter clothing, traditional handicraft, toys for the little ones — and honey
- Family-friendly entertainment galore is also available (see map below)
Abu Dhabi: From the distance, a traditional fort-like structure greets the eye. Emirati flags fly from its towers, and a massive wooden gate lies open. Within the walls is Abu Dhabi’s most charming festive event. It's where heritage and entertainment meet and match.
The Sheikh Zayed Festival is a true celebration of Emirati traditions. For those who have never had a chance to learn about the UAE’s forefathers, this is where your get an authentic glimpse into the country’s past.
What is it?
The Sheikh Zayed Festival is organised every winter at Al Wathba. While the focus remains on Emirati culture, the venue is divided into a series of 30 national pavilions where traders offer thousands of items for sale, from rich honey to winter clothing, from toys to traditional handicrafts.
Apart from the kiosks and shops, there is a dedicated zone for amusement park rides and children’s play. Traditional performances are held regularly at various country pavilions, including a magic and entertainment shows for children. A colourful central fountain captivates visitors every half hour in the evening, as does a fireworks display at 10pm every Friday.
Visitors can also sample a variety of cuisines at the Festival, although the focus remains firmly on Emirati and Arab fare. The three-month long event is named after the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
During a recent visit, Gulf News spoke to some of the most interesting personalities at the festival:
Hasan, 70, pearl diver
If you weren’t looking for him, you might almost miss Hasan Al Hammadi. Dressed in an unassuming green thoub and traditional headdress, he often sits on his prayer mat in the corner stall, praying or tinkering with his many tools. But begin a conversation with him and it will feel like one you hope will never end.
Using his command of clear Arabic phrases and evocative gestures, the 70-year-old Emirati tells visitors of diverse nationalities about his years in the sea.
As pearl divers and fishers, we went out to sea each day with the hope of simply putting food on the table. We worked day to day, with rudimentary tools that we crafted with our own hands
“Nobody wants to go back to the old days: they were tough and uncertain. As pearl divers and fishers, we went out to sea each day with the hope of simply putting food on the table. We worked day to day, with rudimentary tools that we crafted with our own hands,” Al Hammadi told Gulf News.
“Today, we sit here to show today’s generations what it was like so that they may appreciate how we got here, through the vision and generosity of our leadership,” he added. Grabbing a woven rope basket, Al Hammadi demonstrated how he would once go pearl diving, a skill he learnt from his father as a mere eight-year old.
“We would sling this basket, called ‘al dean’, around our neck, and tie a rock weighing 8 to 10 kilograms to our ankles. Then, attaching a wooden nose clip that helped us hold our breath, we would dive 8 to 10 metres underwater, feeling the sea bed for oysters. We would then place these in the baskets and tug at the rope when we wanted to surface so that our compatriots in the boat could haul us up,” Al Hammadi said.
Al Hammadi would spend months at sea during the summer, diving near the islands of Delma, Arzanah and Bukhoosh. The waters were rough and cold, and not every oyster grabbed from the sea would yield pearls. Using a blade with a curved tip and wooden handle, Al Hammadi showed how you open up an oyster to look for pearls, called ‘lu’lu’ in Arabic.
“There would be small light growths in the bed of the oyster. You would gently turn over the flesh in the middle to look around, and toss away the ones that didn’t have pearls,” he said, handling the flesh ever so lightly with his weathered hands.
When they weren’t diving, Al Hammadi said the divers were often repairing fishing nets and boats. He held up nets of various weave, some thick, others fine, all weighted with stones to help them sink in the water.
“We would do everything ourselves, from fixing the boats to making the nets and gathering the pearls. I’ve gone on to teach my children what I know, but I also love to tell people about the days of yore,” said Al Hammadi, now the general manager of a marine heritage firm.
Daoud, 40: Carpenter, boat-builder
Daoud Mohammad shaved away at the massive wooden block. When asked where it would fit, the 40-year-old pointed at the sail of another boat, then took visitors to see the little rollers through which the sail would be strung. Comparing the two, it was clear that he had been working to create a larger wooden roller for a bigger sail.
“It’s called a jaa’me, and you simply learnt how to make one just by sitting next to your father. I was 15 years old when I made the first complete boat parts,” the Emirati carpenter told Gulf News.
He is wiry but strong, and an expert with the various tools. There are pointed blades of various lengths, nails, knives and even hammers. At present, Mohammad is working on building a medium-sized boat. For someone not in the know, it isn’t clear what the differences are between the different boats, called sam’aa, jalboot, bagara, and ranging from 4 to 24 metres long. But Mohammad said he knew them all at a glance.
One of the easiest ways to differentiate between boats is to look at the bow or the front. The 'bagara', for instance, is spacious and was mainly used for travel. The 'jalboot' and 'sam’aa' were boats used for pearl diving and fishing.
“One of the easiest ways to differentiate between boats is to look at the bow or the front. The bagara, for instance, is spacious and was mainly used for travel. The jalboot and sam’aa were boats used for pearl diving and fishing,” Mohammad said.
According to Mohammad, it can take teams of 10 people about two months to build a small boat, and larger groups of builders up to a year to for the larger vessels. In the past, it was a painstaking process, but an essential one that helped ensure a livelihood for fishermen and pearl divers.
“Today we have schools teaching young Emiratis about the past, and telling them about ship building. I’m glad; these are things we should all know about,” Mohammad said.
He pointed to Al Hammadi, saying that the elderly gentleman had taught him a lot about ship building, and was his teacher. In turn, the wizened Emirati patted Mohammad on the back. “You are now the teacher, o Mohammad,” Al Hammadi said.
Afra, 54: Weaver
The colourful fabrics are strung around, striking in their vibrancy and pretty patterns. There are long pieces hung on the wall, others hanging from the stall posts. In the midst, Afra Al Mansoori sat, twisting some long pieces of a string on a cylindrical loom.
“I work a regular job at a government heritage department, but I cannot give up this craft that lends so much colour to my life,” the 54-year-old Emirati told Gulf News.
I work a regular job at a government heritage department, but I cannot give up this craft that lends so much colour to my life.
Called Al Sadu, the traditional weaving process is used to make everything from bags to saddle belts to carpets. The designs are mostly geometric patterns, often simple and interspersed with block like elements. At other times, it can get rather intricate, especially in the items that incorporate the famous red-black-white palette.
Al Mansoori pointed to a basket of yarn at the side of her stall. “I work with what I get, but I do love the traditional use of red in my designs,” she said. The process of Al Sadu was once used by Bedouin tribes to craft necessities like saddle belts, but today, with the availability of other options, it is often used to make decorative items like keychains, bookmarks and phone covers.
“I like to make little gifts for my friends and colleagues, or even make enough for charity sales. After all, it is a craft I learnt from my mother, and I want to keep on using it,” she said. And in an attempt to preserve the skill, Al Mansoori is also teaching Al Sadu to her three daughters.
In fact, her passion for preserving Emirati heritage is also obvious in the way Al Mansoori dresses – a black abaya and scarf, along with a traditional golden face covering known as the burqa. And despite her full-time job, Al Mansoori continues to spend time on the weaving, even though making a big piece can take about two weeks of intensive effort that puts pressure on her hands.
“Right now, I am making some pockets to add to a robe,” she said, pointing to the beige and golden threads strung on the loom. “And I intend to continue weaving for as long as I possibly can,” Al Mansoori added with a twinkle in her eye.
Albandari, 42: Perfumer
The distinguishing fragrance of an Emirati household is today readily available in bottles and jars. But there is an art to it that only a skilled perfumer can identify.
“You mix musk, amber scent, flower oils and oud powder. But to get the right scent –that perfect sweet heady fragrance – the oud powder should be more than the musk,” said Albandari Al Dhaheri, a 42-year-old Emirati homemaker.
You mix musk, amber scent, flower oils and oud powder. But to get the right scent – that perfect sweet heady fragrance – the oud powder should be more than the musk.
Once the fragrance is blended, it is made into a paste with dough-like consistency, and kept in the dark until it hardens. Another way is to dip blocks of charcoal till they absorb the fragrance. These create the traditional incense burnt in Emirati households and majlises across the UAE.
“I know you can find readymade oud and bakhoor. But my grandmother taught me how to make incense, and to get that flawless scent, and I want to both preserve it and pass it on,” Al Dhaheri said.
She has been making her own incense for more than two decades now, and often sells it at craft markets and fair. She is also the only one in the current generation of her family who knows how to get the blend right, so with the hope of keeping the art of Emirati perfume making alive, she is now teaching her younger sisters.
It isn’t just Emirati homes that smell fragrant: Emirati women themselves seem to exude the alluring incense fragrance. Al Dhaheri said that there is an art to that as well.
“Do you know how to do it?” she asked. Picking up a burner, she then demonstrated how one would hold up the scarf just atop the burner, and let the aromatic smoke swirl around the fabric till it had been absorbed. “When you do it this way, the scent lingers all day long. Try it if you haven’t already,” she recommended.
Ibrahim, 60, falconer
The gorgeous bird of prey on his arm was the first draw. A few words in, it was clear that Ibrahim Al Hammadi, 60, had once worked as a falconer under Sheikh Zayed himself, and had so many inspiring stories to narrate about the visionary leader.
“His Highness put the highest value on respecting others. When we were training under him, he told us to hold the falcon on our left arm, just so that our right arm would remain free to greet anyone else who entered our company,” Al Hammadi told Gulf News. It was a lesson he never forgot, just like he learnt how to rein in a struggling bird. The trick is to let the bird go, with the assurance that it will return on its own.
His Highness (Sheikh Zayed) put the highest value on respecting others. When we were training under him, he told us to hold the falcon on our left arm, just so that our right arm would remain free to greet anyone else who entered our company.
“His Highness said a bird knew its perch, and that we should not struggle. And I’ve diligently followed it,” Al Hammadi said as he held a majestic white falcon on his arm.
The falconry season lasts from August to February in the UAE, and Al Hammadi narrated how they would head out as groups into the desert. The activity would begin as early as 8am in the morning, and last until sunset.
“I started learning falconry as an eight-year-old from my elders, and by the time I was 15, I began working with His Highness. I remember how His Highness' favourite species was Jeer Al Hurr, the same as the bird I am now carrying. Birds of this particular species are large and powerful, and especially beautiful to look at,” he said. Al Hammadi now has eight children of his own, and many grandchildren. He remains an avid falconer, and remembers carefully what his famous teacher taught him.
“My days working with His Highness taught me so much about falconry; today, I am happy to share the knowledge,” he said, petting the bird on his arm.
What visitors say
Every year, the Sheikh Zayed Festival sees more than a million visitors from various nationalities. Many come down to enjoy a weekend evening, others come to get a taste of Emirati cuisine and culture.
Saleh Al Jabri, 36, Emirati
I’m visiting the Festival with all five of my children and my wife, especially so that I can educate them about our rich history and traditions. We’ve already been here once before this year, and today we are spending some extra time in Department of Culture and Tourism pavilion, which features people well-verse in falconry, Al Sadu weaving, coffee making, and Arabian weddings. This is a lovely exploration of Emirati culture, and we will continue to come here every year.
Yagnesh Suryavanshi, 38, Indian
“We live not too far away, and the Festival seemed like a lovely way to spend an evening. I’ve brought my wife and six-year-old son, and we had a great time visiting the various pavilions and sampling the foods.”
Dana Patru, 47, Romanian
“This is my first time at the Festival, and I decided to come down because my friends had said it was a nice place to visit. I’ve enjoyed the lively entertainment, and eaten quite a lot of Emirati dumplings – luqaimat. In fact, I might even visit again soon.”
Open daily till February 20, 2021.
Tickets: Dh5 per person, available on site and online at zayedfestival.com