Al Hosn Festival began on Friday with a wedding, big band parade, ayyalah stick dances and jazz.
The annual event, organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, is taking place until January 22 at Al Hosn District, the outdoor open space beside Qasr Al Hosn.
For an event that celebrates UAE history and culture, there could not be a more apt venue than beside the capital’s oldest stone building and once the ruling family's palace, the seat of government, then National Archives. For the festival, the historic venue — located between glass high-rise buildings and hotels — has undergone another transformation, evoking the atmosphere of a traditional Emirati village through its many palm reed stalls, shimmering with trinkets and lugaimat, emanating scents of oud and spices. There are enactments of traditional Emirati weddings, camel walks and live music.
In one booth, Sabha Al Nayili is selling hand-painted gahwa pots and incense holders with designs inspired by traditional regional jewellery.
“I use a glass pen,” she says. “Sometimes I come up with the designs by myself, other times I base them on images of jewellery I find online. They’re all painted by hand. I paint on clay and mirrors as well.”
Al Nayili has been developing her craft for nine years and is now running a shop in Al Ain called Al Khutoot Al Dhahabiya to sell her works.
“The first attempt was a failure, but over time I began understanding the materials I’m working with and the technique of the glass pen," she adds.
In another booth, Salem Al Kaabi presents traditional halwa, made fresh and only using only natural ingredients. There are also lavish gift boxes and ribboned halwa packages.
“Everything is fresh," he says. "Saffron, brown sugar and several other ingredients. They are sweets from the UAE's heritage.”
Al Kaabi’s Bait Al Qaseed has branches in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. He started the company 10 years ago and has participated in every iteration of the festival since its launch in 2013.
“The shop was barely a year old when we first participated in Al Hosn Festival,” he says. “We’ve been here every year since. It’s grown considerably.”
The traditional area of the festival offers visitors the chance to interact with desert animals, from camels to falcons and even snakes. Emirati dances are performed here, beside a Makers Village that features items created by local and regional artists and designers, from metalworks to karak mixes.
Alongside the swathes of traditional foods, crafts and performances, the festival celebrates Abu Dhabi's contemporary cultural fabric.
Pop-up stalls by some of the city’s best-known restaurants and establishments, such as Zahrat Libnan and All Prints, sit alongside a specialised space for competitions involving Arabic coffee. Installations by local artists are embedded within the vibrant landscape.
Wasl is a collaboration between House of Artisans and designer Zainab Alblooki. With circular walls roped on the outside and mirrors on the interior, the installations become unexpectedly vast as one steps inside. Even more unexpectedly, three women sit in the centre of the installation, weaving the traditional talli weavings. Their reflections reiterating in multitudes by the curving mirrors around them.
“The installation is called Wasl and it means connection,” the artist says. “It is in response to the barriers that came as a result of the pandemic. From the outside, the roped walls signify that, but inside, you find it reflects the outside and represents that life goes on. It’s a totally different experience.”
Another installation is 7 Pillars by artist Fatima Abdulrahman. The artwork is described by a plaque as “a token of appreciation and honour to the UAE on its 51st National Day and a true embodiment of its solid unity”.
The installation comprises, as its name suggests, seven plexiglass columns each filled with different coloured sand or stone. The edges of the work's glass structures are adorned with mirrors, evoking the visual traits of a desert mirage.
“It’s been a beautiful festival so far,” says Mishaal Shalaan, an Emirati guest visiting the festival with his wife and children.
“There’s an educational component, which is great for children. And overall, it’s a wonderful celebration of our heritage. It’s good to bring our children to see how people used to live.”
The festival has its allure for residents as well. Oleksandra, a Ukrainian woman who works in Abu Dhabi, says she is visiting the festival for a second time, after last visiting it nearly a decade ago.
“It’s a lovely space, somewhere you want to come and stay at all day,” she says. “It’s calming and as a festival, it speaks to my interest in wanting to understand more about how life was like here before.”
Shaadi Hamooda, a Palestinian man, who has been living in Abu Dhabi for 10 years, visited with his two-year-old son.
“It’s generally a beautiful atmosphere here,” he says. “The festival gives us a chance to learn about local heritage. It’s lovely. It enriches the understanding of Emirati history with both citizens and residents, to see the conditions of life here in the past. It makes us appreciate the country all the more.”
Al Hosn Festival is running until January 22 at Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi. More information is available at abudhabiculture.ae