Hauling woven palm baskets and provisions, pearl divers walk in a uniform line towards a dhow bobbing along the shoreline.
As they march, the men chant a lilting song against the seaborne breeze. Their children and wives are behind them on the beach, waving palm fronds and wishing their loved ones a safe voyage.
The journey ahead will be a perilous one as the divers risk being killed by sharks or drowning. It will be months before they are able to return their families.
Hopefully, they won’t return empty-handed.
This scene is re-enacted a few times a day at the inaugural Maritime Heritage Festival, taking place at Abu Dhabi’s Al Bahar until March 27. It offers a glimpse into a vital element of coastal life in the capital only 60 years ago.
In fact, the whole festival has been modelled after a historic village, says Randa Haidar, acting director of culture festivals and platforms at DCT — Abu Dhabi, the organiser of the festival.
“We spoke with heritage experts to get a good understanding of how they spent their days, what they wore and what they ate,” she says.
“Even the stalls in the festival have been modelled based on their testimonies of what houses in the village looked like.”
More than a few of these heritage experts can be found at the festival. One of them is Jumaa Mohammed Al Rumaithi, who runs a mobile maritime museum based out of Al Dhafra.
Mr Al Rumaithi is displaying “a fraction” of his collection at the festival, which features everything from handmade knives and anchors to exquisite seashells.
“It’s important the new generation knows what life was like before and where it is we come from,” he says. “The sea was our lifeline. These skills were necessary to survive. Life was hard, sure, if we look at it through the contemporary lens but they didn’t see it that way.”
He says he was keen on participating at the festival to share this insight on maritime heritage. However, he says while the hard facts of seafaring life can be divulged in a few minutes, it would take him the entire duration of the festival to share his stories from the sea.
“I’ll be here throughout the 10 days of the festival to talk about what life was like then. I’ll be happy to answer any and all questions about the sea,” he says.
Another stall, organised by the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD), shows how pearls are formed in oysters, while also shedding light on the process of running a pearl farm.
“First a spat collector is used to collect floating oyster larvae at sea,” says Ayesha Al Hammadi, a spokeswoman for EAD. “Small-sized oysters are first grown in pyramid-shaped nets for five months and then transferred to bigger nets.”
The oysters are then grown in pocket nets for another two months before fertilisation. They are then placed in the sea for a year and a half before being cultivated. The entire process, Ms Al Hammadi says, can take up to four years.
One of the most arresting zones in the festival is the fish market, organised by the Fishermen Co-operation Society. While vendors sell imported fish from Egypt, Turkey and Oman, it is the local catch that is in the spotlight.
An auction area has been set up, allowing festivalgoers to bid for the freshest fish and seafood, including hammour and threadfin bream, colloquially known as Sultan Ibrahim.
Successful bidders can then take their fish to the Cutting Board to have it cleaned, gutted and trimmed. If you prefer to have your fish right then and there, you can take it over to the barbecue section, where it will be cooked using traditional recipes.
Around the fish market, more than two dozen vendors have set up stalls selling everything from khous baskets woven from palm trees to honey, fishing rods and even vintage Monopoly games.
A few steps from the souq and the atmosphere changes, as the Retro Abu Dhabi section celebrates a less distant period of the capital’s history, namely the 1980s and 1990s. The classic songs sung at sea are swapped for pop anthems including hits from Destiny’s Child, Outkast and Amro Diab.
Bakeries and sweet shops that have been staples in the capital for decades have also set up stalls. Arcade games have been installed alongside booths offering virtual reality experiences in pearl diving and desert navigation.
The festival also has a dedicated area for traditional games, such as hand-to-hand wrestling, known as Al Mutaraha, and Al Tabba, which organisers describe as being “like baseball but played with palm fronds and dates”.
Abu Dhabi Police will be competing in a range of heritage games on the last day of the festival as part of the Ministry of Interior's Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Traditional rowing races organised by the Emirates Heritage Club will also be held during the festival. Teams will compete in five 12-metre races along the Corniche for a chance at the championship title. The final race will take place on March 26.
Finally, at the heart of the festival is a twist on the traditional majlis. Working with AD Media, Emarat FM presenter Hareb Al Suwaidi will host a daily show on the radio station throughout the festival, in which he will speak with maritime heritage experts and experienced sailors, “al nawakhtha”, who will share their adventures from the sea.
Entry to the Maritime Heritage Festival is Dh30 for adults and Dh15 for children aged 5 to 12. It will be open daily from 4pm to 11pm. More information is available at admaritimefest.ae.