Al Dhafra Festival
More than an annual celebration of the Bedouin life, Al Dhafra Festival has turned into a school of heritage and culture for visitors and Emirati younger generations. Here the door is open to learn about the desert, its people, the way of life, the different
traditions, and where the glorious past meets the present to lay the ground for a brighter future.
Held in Madinat Zayed in Al Gharbia (the Western Region) in Abu Dhabi, the Al Dhafra Festival is organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee from the 14th to the 28th of December, and has been marked since its launch by the remarkable presence of children and youth in various activities and competitions.
This year, the Higher Organising Committee stepped up efforts to draw more children and youths as it chose to hold the Festival in a period that falls within the school and university holidays. It has also prepared a whole programme for students and children to have fun and at the same time contribute to Festival activities and events.
The Al Dhafra Festival is a unique platform that displays the qualities of Emirati society, and more precisely the Bedouin society which is marked by unity and cohesion. The noble values of ancestors are transmitted from father to son and mother daughter in a prudent and judicious way. Al Dhafra Festival offers a perfect environment and opportunity for the process of diffusion and communication of historical legacy by drawing all generations, old and young, to one site.
At the camps erected by Bedouin tribes and families in the arid desert of the Gate of the Empty Quarter, grand-fathers, fathers and children sit together for long hours, chatting, telling stories and tales of the past, and sharing special, warm moments. Each family or tribe has its elder, who always sits in the middle. The discussions usually include anecdotes, accounts of past experiences, and information about the desert, camels, falcons and various aspects of desert life.
Ahmad, a 19-year-old Emirati, said, "The notion of time disappears here. You never get bored and you always learn. I love to listen to elders. They always have something to teach and tell. They are a boundless source of knowledge that deserves our highest respect and esteem." At the camps, family and tribe members show their hospitality to any visitor. For them, it is a question of pride and honour. Hospitality itself turns into one of the Festival's competitions: Who is the most generous, ready to lend a hand, and welcoming? When a visitor comes, youths and children are the first to greet. They invite you to join their gathering, offer coffee, tea, Qaraq (tea with milk), dates and traditional sweets. Then, they present him to the elder. Any guest is treated like a member of the family or tribe.
Hamza, a 12-year-old, said, "Here in camps we share roles. Every one of us has a job to do. We watch over the camels that we brought to participate in the Camel Mazayna, or beauty contest. We sit together and talk. For me, Al Dhafra and the desert camps are the best school ever. I learn a lot in here and I am always ready to learn more." Away from camps, children and youths are present in all competitions and events. They have become the faithful public of Al Dahfra Festival. At the Camel Mazayna, children and youths occupy the majority of seats, they come with their families and tribes to encourage and cheer their camels.
Adbullah, a 9-year-old wearing a Kandoura (white robe) and holding a Khaizarana (multi-use cane), said, "I want to become a member of the Judging Committee in the future. Camels are beautiful. My father is a camel owner. Judges know many things about camels, but I think our camels are the best. We are going to win, I am quite sure." At the official site of the Falcon competition, children and youths are also present. Some young people are already falconers, and the children there are eager to learn. Every father brings his sons, no matter how young they are.
Mohammad, an Emirati falconer from Dubai and a father of a 4-year-old boy said, "I bring him with me to every competition. I am so happy that I succeeded in transmitting my passion to him. He loves falcons and wants to learn. But, I remain very careful. I want him to learn everything but at the right time." At the Traditional Market, grand-mothers and mothers do not come alone. Daughters are present in all the 180 shops of Emirati women. Al Dhafra Festival has given all these women an excellent opportunity to join efforts and work together to prepare the products, display them in a creative way, and sell them.
Um Ahmad, who owns a shop which sells dates and date-derived products, said, "We have a small farm in Liwa, on which we grow date palms. Since an early age, I have been working on dates. We have Khallas, Dabbas and Shishi. My mother taught me the various techniques to preserve dates, and the best methods to use them. We have fresh and dried dates, syrup, and paste. I have two daughters who help me at home and here in the Market. They have learned many things." The desire to give knowledge becomes more meaningful when it comes along with the younger generation's desire to learn. Al Dhafra Festival and its organisers have always been keen on this culture of sharing and working together for the best of the Emirati culture and heritage. The concept consists in preserving Bedouin culture while progressing towards the future, and is inspired by the words of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (God Bless His Soul): "I don't want to bring the Bedouin to the city, but to bring culture to the Bedouin." "We owe this social cohesion and unity to the wise vision of the late Sheikh Zayed, to His Highness Sheikh Khalifa, and to all our rulers. We have been taught to remain united, share knowledge, and preserve our culture in which we take pride. Al Dhafra Festival is a unique occasion that bring us together, and an exceptional platform to market our products and promote them," said one of the daughters of Um Ahmad.
Once inside the Traditional Market, a plethora of products, bright colours and tempting odours invite tourists and local visitors to explore the different shops. Perfumes, antiques, dates' varieties, honey, traditional clothes, and other products on display offer a glimpse into the history of the U.A.E. and the Gulf region.
The Market is a microcosm of the larger Arab Bedouin society. The major aim behind its creation consists in summarising hundreds of years of desert life into one place and one space.
Umm Mubarak, who began learning traditional dress and cloth making at the age of 15, said, "We learned from our ancestors and older generations. In our craft, we use the same old patterns and criteria, but we also add a new touch. Our goal is not strictly material. We seek to promote our traditional attire and believe that the responsibility to preserve customs and traditions lies on our shoulders. We remain determined keep our heritage in our hands." The best way to teach children is to teach them when they are having fun and the Organising Committee of Al Dhafra Festival was aware of this fact when it created the Children's Village and chose the Traditional Market as a permanent location.
Bringing children to a site where traditional products of all sorts are displayed on a daily basis appears to be a perceptive idea. There, children can watch, touch and learn about the different crafts and materials and at the same time enjoy their time at the Festival.
At the Village, young girls of all ages sit with older women and are trained in different traditional crafts like Sadu (a form of weaving for the production of fine furniture and decorative accessories) henna, coffee preparation, and the making of mats and even coffins with palm leaves. Others sit and read, or paint at the Children's Library. Entertainment is also on the menu with characters like the Dabdoub (bear) and daily cultural competitions.
Meanwhile, students from the Vocational Education Development Centre (VEDC) are participating in Al Dhafra Festival for the third time this year. Their role and tasks have developed over the past years.
"We are trained in security procedures and we work alongside the police forces in checking visitor passes and ensuring access only for people with the required authorisation and badges. Our efforts in helping the police provide a better service for both visitors and participants in Al Dhafra," said one student who was standing near the main entrance of the Mazayna.
The VEDC students also help in the handling of the camels at the Mazayna, and some of them are chosen to lend a hand in the VIP section. Al Dhafra Festival offers these students a chance to explore and be exposed to their heritage and culture. They learn the best methods and techniques of the past from the school staff, camel handlers and elders.
VEDC is a boarding institute that caters for Emiratis who have an interest in vocational studies rather than mainstream academic education, enabling them to become citizens who will play an active role in contributing to the U.A.E. culture, society and economy.