Amid the UAE's growing roster of festivals, Hatta Cultural Nights occupies a unique space, with all the handiworks, performances and foods at the event created by local villagers.
While the inaugural event was modest, taking place in 2020 as Covid-19 restrictions began to materialise, it has benefited from its two-year hiatus, returning with a new location, a sharpened focus and a touch of modernity.
First, the location. The event is now at Hatta Heritage Village, where it will be running daily from 4pm to 10pm until New Year's Day. Nestled in the Hajjar Mountains, Hatta Heritage Village features houses made of mud, palm fronds, wood and stone that date back to the 16th century.
The area recently underwent a redevelopment in a bid to highlight the culture of the mountainous environment in Hatta and the local expressions.
Perhaps no other event helps the Hatta Heritage Village live up to its name as much as this one. Hatta Cultural Nights provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy the craggy and looming landscape of the Dubai enclave, while enjoying lugaimat, regag, honey and poetry from local artisans and artists.
“Everything here is from the people of Hatta, everything in the souq is their own handiwork and from their own farms,” Mariam Al Tamimi, of Dubai Culture, the organising body of Hatta Cultural Nights, says.
“That was part of the event’s mission, to support their skills and talent so that in the future they’ll have their own businesses,” she says.
Hatta Cultural Nights has a robust performance programme that shines a spotlight on the area’s cooking and poetry traditions. There are Emirati delicacies, including lugaimat, as well as a range of foods only found here.
“There are live demonstrations of telli, khoos and henna, which has been particularly popular on opening day,” Al Tamimi says. “But then there are more unique demonstrations, such as how the tanoor is cooked.
"Tanoor is a meat dish. In the mountainous regions, they have a specific way of cooking it. The slaughtered sheep is cooked in its entirety in a hole five to six metres down for two days. After two days, people gather and remove the tanoor and distribute the meat.
"It was a meal that would be specially served during Eid.”
Hatta Cultural Nights marks the opening of a series of stores for Hatta’s artisans and families. They will be open year-round, Al Tamimi says, and will rotate with new occupiers every three months. There are seven shops dedicated to foodstuff and another 15 for handicrafts and other goods.
“We have quite a long list,” she says. “The souq is made for Hatta’s people. It is also free of charge for them. So that we don’t leave anyone out, we decided on a three-month rotation plan.”
Among the shops is Albedwawi Honey, run by Mohammed Albedwawi.
The Hatta native says he would routinely go into the area’s mountains, looking for sources of wild honey. These excursions, he says, were filled with danger and he soon began learning how to keep and maintain hives of his own.
“Honey is from the heart,” he says. “Going into the mountains is extremely dangerous, and after a while, it was too much, so I decided to start keeping hives.”
After offering a sample of the dark wild honey obtained from the mountains, Albedwawi elaborates on the different seasons of honey, as well as the meticulousness he adopts during harvest.
“Most people, after they feed sugar water to the bees during off-seasons, do not clean the hive of the honey they make pre-season before they start making the good stuff,” he says. “I make sure to clean it and then give it away. It tastes good but it isn’t the quality we are looking for.”
Aisha Abdulla makes traditional thin regag bread with tahini, salt and water on top of a convex stove — a favourite in Emirati cuisine.
“I make them in all sorts of variety, with eggs, Chips Oman, cheese and Nutella,” she says. “I learned how to make regag when I was very young, maybe 11 years old.”
Abdulla is participating at the festival for the second time.
“The village has been here since the 1800s,” she says. “The stories of our grandparents and our great-great-grandparents are here. That’s why we love it.”
Another way that Hatta Cultural Nights distinguishes itself from other traditional festivals is in its modern twist, particularly in the way the event has been designed and branded.
"We wanted to mix heritage with modernity," Laila Abdulla Belhoush, project manager of Hatta Cultural Nights, says. "To use colours that are vibrant and attractive.
"The design and artwork are different from other festivals. We wanted to be unique. We even changed the programming this year, to include everything from the cultural side as well as the entertainment aspect. For opening day, we had more than 1,000 visitors."
Belhoush says she is looking forward to seeing how the festival and its identity develop.
"We are thinking of finding something specific, a theme or even a poem, and build the colours and design around that," she says. "Next year, I hope it will be even bigger. For this year, the heritage village newly opened and there was still work to be done. Next year is going to be even bigger."
Hatta Cultural Nights runs until New Year's Day. More information is available at www.dubaiculture.gov.ae