40 years is time for big celebration

40 years of the UAE: In tribal areas, celebrations for National Day have already been going on for weeks. But rather than each village celebrating alone, this year the communities are coming together as one.

Ras al Khaimah, November 25, 2011 - Men perform a traditional dance at a mountain tribal party as part of the National Day celebrations in Helailah, Ras al Khaimah, November 25, 2011. (Jeff Topping/The National)
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // When the federal government declared 40 days of celebration ahead of this year's National Day, tribesmen sharpened their swords and pulled out their goatskin drums.

National Day is commemorated like a tribal wedding in the mountains and is treated with equal parts joy and formality.

The celebrations usually run for days before and after December 2 in rural areas. This year, celebrations have lasted weeks.

"If you stay in the north, every day you can see something different in these 40 days," said Ali Ahmed, who is 36 and lives in Wadi Sha'am. "Normally each village celebrates alone but this year we decided to celebrate in one location. This day is about unity, and this is what we want to show. We are not only celebrating in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi but also the rest of the country."

The communities have chosen to celebrate together at mountain parties attended by thousands with the invitation extended to desert tribes to join in.

"All of this north area, they are together for their parties and for funerals. Down to the last, one man has to help the other," said Ali Al Bahar, 37, a government employee from Al Jeer. "A seaman can help the one from the mountain, and the one from the mountain can help the farmer."

Mr Al Bahar was one of about 2,000 partygoers at a National Day celebration at Al Helailah on the north coast this weekend.

Boys in bullet belts with toy rifles and girls in dresses resembling billowing UAE flags with faux-gold headpieces arrived with their mothers.

The men arrived later, with their tribes. Their entrance was announced by lithe boys flashing swords and hopping on one foot. The men followed in a line to show solidarity, shrieking and puffing the names of their tribe in a nadbah (war cry) before they touched noses and kissed foreheads with relatives from other clans and villages.

The location of Al Helailah, a sandy strip between mountains and sea, was carefully chosen: its sandy flats are ideal for camel racing and it is beside the mountain homes of the sword throwers.

Under stormy skies, hundreds of men performed the razif, a bobbing dance with canes and axes. Women looked on from the protection of great canopies.

The thunder of the drums only stopped for prayers, when hundreds faced the sea to pray.

Even for those who live in some of the country's poorest areas, National Day is a chance to give thanks.

Aisha Zayed, 70, was told by her neighbours to put on her best jewellery and join the party. She has no living family. "Before there were only wooden things and houses of sand. The government has helped me with a house," said Ms Zayed, who is from a family of wood collectors from Salhad mountain.

"Before there was poverty. The relationships between families and neighbours and tribes, it was strained. Houses and roads have made it easier to be connected."

Celebrations have taken place in Masafi, Diftah and Showkah in the far south and more will take place in the coming days.

Although the government has funded many of these events for the first time, the celebrations remain grassroots events. The idea came from community leaders who went from village to village to extend invitations in person.

"It is all of us: it is not one person, it is the effort of everyone," said Ali Mohammed, 43, one of the organisers. "This area is like nearly one tribe and one family, and we are inviting all other tribes."