Visiting Al Hosn Festival, it is perhaps best to enter from the gate opposite to Falcon Tower. That is, if you’re aiming for a somewhat chronological experience.
The cultural event, taking place at the historic Qasr Al Hosn fort until December 4, is divided into three sections signifying the past, present and future. Enter from the north-western entrance and you’ll immediately face a grid of stalls that are made of palm reeds that give the impression of an old Emirati village.
There is the thud of the daf and Al-Ras drums in the air. A line of Emirati men dance the Al Ayala, a stick dance that reflects war. Camels pace at the foot of the historic stone structure, and children play impromptu games of chase, dressed in traditional garb.
The annual event, organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, celebrates the UAE's 50th anniversary by giving visitors a chance to learn and engage with the country's heritage.
In the stalls, you’ll find plenty of traditional foods, handicrafts and jewellery for sale. Local artisans also display inherited weaving techniques such as Al Sadu, which uses the wool of sheep, camels and goats, as well as Khoos, which involves braiding palm fronds to form everyday objects such as the circular Surood, on which food is placed, or the fan-like Mahafa, used to cool oneself or fan a flame.
You’ll also find some less expected crafts and artisans are more than willing to elaborate on their techniques, even teaching you a few novel skills.
Rashid Al Antari is a blacksmith hobbyist who says he is one of the few sword makers in the country. Sitting cross-legged in front of a miniature forge, he hammers the steel into shape, undisturbed by the amber sparks wafting around him.
There are two main types of swords that were historically used in the UAE, he explains. “The qatarra is the slightly curved and was a favourite in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai. In the northern emirates, such as Ras Al Khaimah, the more symmetrical saif is used.”
Al Antari has more than a decade’s worth of experience in making and selling swords. It's his preferred way of unwinding after a long day’s work, and he has spent a great deal of time perfecting his technique, learning how to differentiate between varying qualities of steel. He has also devised his own branding system, embossing the base of the blade with a circular emblem that reads Sakhr, or rock, as well as a tapered indentation in the centre of the sword.
Sitting across from him at the festival is an elderly man who is also sustaining a somewhat neglected craft: hand-stitching sails.
Muhammed Al Marzoogi says while the factory-produced sails of today are preferred by race boats for their light weight, they are often made by synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon that aren’t very durable.
“These sails were vital to our livelihood,” he says. “While sails made in factory are lightweight and quick to produce, a small rip would quickly spread and leave you dead in the water.”
Al Marzoogi’s sails are instead made of natural materials such as cotton and are more resilient. “Even if it rips, the sail will get you back home,” he says, piercing the canvas with a bodkin and running a thread along the hem in a neatly scalloped line.
As you step into the festival’s Makers Village, you’ll come across a series of commissioned works by Emirati artists that put an innovative spin on traditional handicrafts and techniques. Shaikha Al Ali’s Thoub introduces structural design to traditional garments, reinterpreting the traditional mkhwara dress through the craft of hand-pleating.
“[Al Ali] worked with a master pleater to create a technique that responded to maritime crafts,” says Zuhoor Al Sayegh, assistant curator at Abu Dhabi's Cultural Foundation. While traditional pleating incorporates a vertical design, she says Al Ali wanted to apply the technique in an oblique gridded pattern to allude to traditional fishing nets.
Elsewhere, Noura Al Serkal’s Value combines pure and plastic silver threads to put a novel touch on the sheila, the traditional Emirati women's covering, highlighting the garment’s place at “the ever-evolving nexus of culture and fashion”, according to the work’s caption. A video is projected onto the installation, which depicts the process of metallic embroidering.
Al Sayegh says sourcing the pure silver threads was a challenge, but that it was important for the work as its weave with silver plastic explores “the interchangeability between something so precious and expensive and something mass produced”.
Rawdha Al Ketbi’s installation, meanwhile, is inspired by the tarabeesh, the traditional garment worn by Emirati men, and exaggerates its braided form in size to form a wave-like structure. Ayesha Hadhir’s Serenades takes on the traditional fishing net, known as Al Gargour, in a playful, inflatable design.
Another work, A Prayer by Maitha Hamdan, interlaces prayer veils in a box frame installation to depict the strength of unity and love for her Emirati roots. “She’s creating these tensions talking about the systems of prayer and meditation,” Al Sayegh says. “[Hamdan] is going to also lead a photography workshop for all ages that is about capturing fabric in emotion."
A series of other workshops ranging from natural dyeing to calligraphy and coral sculptures are also being held at the festival. In addition, the Makers Village presents a collaboration between the House of Artisans and Fatima Bint Mohamed Bin Zayed Initiative, which offers women employment in the weaving industry in Afghanistan.
The co-operation will result in the creation of a textured rug that incorporates different weaving techniques to symbolise the collaborative spirit between the UAE and Afghan communities.
As you venture off to the festival’s final section, you’ll see several start-up companies and retail vendors that aim to take many of the traditional aspects of Emirati culture into the future, such as Laggar, which presents a modern interpretation of the handcrafted sandals worn by men.
This section also features an open-air cinema, with screenings hosted by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the home-grown film and entertainment company in the UAE capital.
An inflatable structure by French artist Cyril Lancelin looms here. Dubbed Pyramid Hexagon, the installation features repetitive geometric shapes that compliment the UAE’s sabkha (sandflat) formations. The site will also be hosting a series of live performances by local musicians, including Arqam and DJ Karrouhat.
Overall, Al Hosn Festival separates itself from other cultural events in the country by the amount of engagement with the local heritage it offers to the public.
With some proactiveness and warmth, you may find yourself learning the proper way of throwing a fishing line or the finer nuances of sword-crafting. But more than that, you'll discover how local handicrafts and customs are being redefined by the newer generation and evolving to contemporary needs and tastes.
More information is available at visitabudhabi.ae