A wonderland for culture: How Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival shines a light on traditions old and new

The annual event's deft mix of authentic culture and entertainment makes it a go-to destination in the winter months

There is cold weather and then there is “jou wathbawy".

Meaning Al Wathba weather, this term was coined by friends when referring to the special kind of chill encountered in the suburb on the outskirts of the capital.

A 50-minute drive from the Abu Dhabi Corniche, Al Wathba is home to a varied landscape of desert, residential communities and wetlands.

Most of the year, the area quietly thrives off the spirit of its close-knit communities and ecotourists visiting the wetlands for sunset snaps of flamingos. However, in the winter months, Al Wathba truly comes into its own.

Running until Saturday, February 20 and located on a purpose-built site resembling a fort, Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival invites not only the country, but indeed the world to Al Wathba for a colourful spectacle packed with international cultural pavilions, eclectic music performances, delicious bites and amusement park rides.

But you need to rug up first.

Jou wathbawy is desert cold – the kind of chill that is tough, probing and unable to be shrugged off with a long-sleeved shirt. Only a jacket or sweater will do when entering the vast complex, after paying a Dh5 ticket fee at one of the numerous entry points.

Mishal Al Mansouri is dressed for the occasion.

Clad in a thick, dark winter kandura and jacket, I find him among an enclave of pavilions when I arrive in the late afternoon.

The area is a purely regional affair with cosy-sized sections dedicated to Lebanon, Jordan and Oman – all home to a number of retailers selling everything from winter jackets, sweaters, rugs, coffee and tea sets to various types of Levant cheeses, olives and spices.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 10, 2021.  Kalim, a nuts vendor at the Afghanistan market at Sheikh Zayed Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed

The queen of the block, however, is the Egyptian pavilion, which comes with its own replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza. It acts as a great background to the central stage, which hosts various musical performances and dances throughout the evening.

A Sudanese folk group is playing as Al Mansouri explains why he visits the festival every year.

“It's great to have a festival that is mostly dedicated to tradition and not just shopping," says the Abu Dhabi resident. "Yes, there are things to buy but the spirit is about knowing our culture and those from elsewhere. This is why I take my kids here, so they can have fun and maybe benefit from some knowledge.”

His annual visits also serve a practical purpose.

"We stock up on things for the house," he says. "Some of the furniture you find here you really can't see at the malls. They are traditional and sometimes handmade. So many Emirati families come here to get new things. It is a good chance to upgrade the living room every year."

Stepping back in time

For an insight into the festival’s keen cultural focus, I venture to both the Heritage Village and Al Wathba Souq.

Standing side by side, they are two of the many sections dedicated to Emirati history and traditional practices.

The Heritage Village recreates an Emirati square filled with majlises, stands selling home-made ouds and spices, as well as a falcon display. At the centre is a commanding stage on which a troupe perform the traditional Ayala dance.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 10, 2021.  Emirati Ayala dancers at the UAE pavillon, Sheikh Zayed Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed

A more immersive step back in time, however, is found in the sprawling Al Wathba Souq. Full of snaking paths and alleyways, this place resembles a television set from a historical Emirati drama.

That nostalgia is further accentuated by the local shopkeepers, whose own works are steeped in tradition.

"All of this is made at our farm that's not too far from here," says the Emirati woman – who prefers I call her "auntie" – behind the Yadooh stand.

With products ranging from fresh butter and chami cheese (Emirati cottage cheese) to zaatar, all the items sold are “fresh from the earth and flesh”.

It is the raw cow's milk she urges me to try. Sensing my initial discomfort, auntie's eyes soften as she proposes to drink it in front of me to quell my fears. I take a hearty swig: it is lukewarm, lightly fermented and surprisingly smooth. I buy the small bottle for Dh5.

Not far away is Umm Muhammad at her Al Burqa'a Al Emarat stand, home to a wide selection of oud, perfumes, jewellery and handcrafted Sheikh Zayed medallions.

She explains that the village vibe of the souk is not only cosmetic.

"We all know each other or make the effort to," she says. "All of us ladies greet each other, inquire about our families and ask if we could help in any way."

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 10, 2021.  A mosque  at the Sheikh Zayed Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed

More Emirati history is found at sunset.

For Al Maghrib prayers, traders and visitors gather at the festival mosque, which is a wonderful replica of the 15th-century Al Badiyah Mosque, named after the small village in Fujairah where it is located.

After the service, we are immediately snapped back to the present, or maybe even the future, with the festival’s signature Emirates Fountain revving into action.

Located within a lagoon at the centre of the festival, the LED tower is home to a dazzling light and laser show which runs frequently throughout the evening.

From Uzbekistan with love

One person not too fussed by the spectacle is Komoliddin Abdullayev.

He doesn’t even notice when I step into his corner stand, so immersed is he in a chess game played on a hand-carved board.

It is one of the many beautiful pieces of art encountered at the Uzbekistan pavilion, easily the most lavish and culturally enriching of the festival.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 10, 2021. Kamaliddin Abdullaev plays chess on a wooden hand made chess board from Uzbekistan at  the Sheikh Zayed Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed

Abdullayev's Art Anor shop is one of half a dozen decorated stands showcasing the best of the former Soviet bloc country's heritage.

There are secular and religious artworks, national clothing including intricately embodied dresses, tunics and velour pants, and, of course, a stand selling the mighty pichak – a traditional Uzbek knife renowned for its versatile and acute blade.

Putting the chess game on hold, Abdullayev tells me Uzbek art is underrated both at home and abroad.

“We are only beginning to appreciate it now,” he says. “In my country there is a revival of the arts, particularly when it comes to miniatures and engraving. Inshallah, this will become popular internationally one day.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 10, 2021.  Uzbekistan dumplings at the Sheikh Zayed Festival.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed

What also needs to become more popular is Uzbek food.

The pavilion is home to an authentic kitchen serving traditional meals.

After asking for the chef’s recommendation, myself and two companions share a hearty meal of manti (steamed dumplings with sour cream), Uzbek pilaf (a rich dish cooked in beef stock and topped off with spices, veggies, onions and sultanas) and skewers of lamb, chicken and meat. It is delicious and comes at a cool price of Dh105.

A festival with heart

Satiated and content, I exit the festival convinced it’s one of the UAE's hidden gem.

Al Mansouri, the Emirati family man I met earlier in the day, was spot on. The Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival’s focus on culture rather than commerce makes all the difference.

While the place is particularly busy and vibrant during the weekends, there is none of the chaotic wheeling and dealing associated with a market place.

Everyone involved, from the performers to the traders, seem to work in unison to preserve and present cultures new and old to a curious crowd.

This all makes for a fascinating evening out … just don’t forget your jacket.