How do you celebrate the founding of a country? Fireworks, maybe a parade or two, give people the day off work so they can enjoy themselves. But how do you go beyond these generic activities to something specific and significant?
That was the question confronting Bill Bragin in his first year as executive director of the Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi. The team wanted to create an event that would commemorate National Day and, as Bragin says, at the same time, allow "the many expats in the UAE to celebrate their connection to the country with their Emirati friends and neighbours".
It was out of this desire to celebrate the incredible diversity of the UAE that Hekayah
, which is Arabic for "story", emerged. Over the years the stories on the Hekayah stage have illuminated every aspect of life in the Emirates. The Hekayah performance that took place on Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of this celebration. The performers this year were chosen, as they have been in years past, by a team of curators who themselves reflect a wide variety of UAE experiences – new arrivals, life-long residents, Emiratis and non-Emiratis.
A member of this year's curatorial committee, Aathma Dious, who was born in Abu Dhabi and is a third-year student at NYUAD, performed at Hekayah in 2018. She didn't realise that the selection process would involve a marathon day of deliberation and discussion about how to best shape the Hekayah line-up. Being part of the curatorial team felt significant, she says, because it's a small contribution to the "growing art scene" in the Emirates. That now includes institutions that didn't exist when Hekayah started, including Warehouse421 and Louvre Abu Dhabi. The scene will expand further with the February launch of the Hay Festival in Abu Dhabi.
This year, Hekayah was hosted by Emirati spoken-word artist Salem Al Attas, a Grand Slam Winner at Rooftop Rhythms, the Middle East's longest-running poetry open mic night. His wry commentary was a combination of jokes and poetry. He put those aside, however, to introduce Hekayah's first performance: Emirati Al Malid, an ensemble devoted to the traditional practice of poetic chanting, which has its roots in 9th century Arabic culture. Salem pointed out that this devotional chanting highlights the importance of melody and poetry in Islamic culture, and the rest of the evening illustrated this idea in increasingly multifaceted ways.
The next few performers after Emirati Al Malid offered their observations about culture and belonging in the form of poems. Welsh-Gujarati poet and novelist Tishani Doshi read a piece about the homes we create – or try to create – for ourselves in language. She drew on words and phrases from languages around the world, culminating in a long tongue-twister of a sentence uttered in Italian. Another poet, Zoe Patterson, who is Canadian and grew up in Al Ain, read works that put aspects of UAE life under the spotlight, including cats on the Corniche and the profound imbalance that comes from spending too much time on long-haul flights above the Earth.
Maitha AlSuwaidi, a student at NYUAD, read a long poem, Four Lessons, that made the connection between family roots and our sense of "home". Written in English and Arabic, it reminded me of something another Emirati student once mentioned to me: she texts her parents in English and they text her back in Arabic, in a seamless flow of bilinguality.
In a conversation we had a few days before Hekayah, AlSuwaidi said that while Arabic is the language of "family," as she imagines it is for many Emiratis, she nevertheless wants her work to resonate with all her readers. She pointed out that in being specific about family details – the joke of her grandfather talking about the "samsing" phone, for instance – her listeners can make their own connections.
"Specificity is what resonates," AlSuwaidi says, "and even though Emiratis might get more of the humour, the audience will still get the idea of generational tension and connection."
AlSuwaidi, like many of the other performers at Hekayah, is excited by the growth of the arts scene in the UAE, and says she hopes to draw on this creative energy after she graduates. "People need to see that arts, culture and research are all intertwined," she says. She hopes eventually to use her creative skills to help shape policy-making in the Gulf.
AlSuwaidi's poetry focused on the domestic, while the poetry of Vamika Sinha focused on cities: a geography of movement, which seems fitting for a poet from India who grew up in Botswana, studies in Abu Dhabi, and has spent semesters in Paris and New York. As a first-year NYUAD student, Sinha sat in the audience at Hekayah and listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan read from Temporary People, his prize-winning collection of short stories set in Abu Dhabi. Sinha says she remembers her younger self wondering if she could ever be on stage like Unnikrishnan. "Now here I am," she says. "And I hope that if someone in the audience sees me up on stage, that person might imagine that there's room for her voice, too."
Another voice at Hekayah came from a writer who is the first NYUAD graduate to be part of the celebration: Joey Bui, whose book Lucky Ticket has just been published in Australia. The stories in the book were written while she was a student at NYUAD and illuminate the lives of different migrants, from Vietnamese refugees to Zanzabari labourers. When she lived in Abu Dhabi, Joey says, the city seemed to her like a place full of vastly different life stories, overlapping and intersecting. "It's through stories," she says, "that we can find out what we have in common."
Joey’s comment illustrates another of the threads that runs through Hekayah – respecting our differences even as we find what we have in common, whether it’s a migration story or a toxic love affair, like the one described in a ballad sung by the Emirati-Honduran singer-songwriter Fafa, whose passionate singing drew fervent applause from the audience.
The finale to this year's Hekayah was provided by Mohammed Bafoory, who calls himself the first "rock and roll artist" in the UAE. Bafoory and his band just put out their first album, and he says they were "humbled" to be included in the Hekayah line-up. He takes pride in his traditional background, but he is equally proud at working in a non-traditional mode.
“There’s a message in my music,” he says, “and I want people to feel the emotional connections.”
His music also offered a rousing counterpart to the traditional chanting with which the evening began. Hekayah reminds us that no nation should be represented by just one story: instead we need voices that overlap, contradict, and interweave. It is in those connections that we see strength, and progress.