Al Wathba’s window to the past: Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival celebrates UAE’s legacy

The lives of poets and navigators, a 568-year-old mosque, an ancient irrigation system in Al Ain, and the ways of the inhabitants of Al Wathba – all present a window to a past that foretells the modern Emirates.
Men make traditional woven handicrafts at the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival. Sarah Dea / The National
Men make traditional woven handicrafts at the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival. Sarah Dea / The National

Outside, people are caught up with the traditional music, dance and food. But inside the yellow-walled hall filled with lines of poetry, Khaseeb Al Hine is enthralled by the historical figure of Al Majidi bin Dhaher.

Most visitors stay briefly. Mr Al Hine, however, just stands there, listening to the words of a holographic figure representing the poet.

The most famous and distinguished Nabati poet of the 17th century, bin Dhaher was given the title “Prince of Vernacular Poetry”. Eloquent and of impeccable character, his writings were shared at gatherings and used as moral examples.

For years his poems were learnt by heart rather than being written down, but after bin Dhaher’s death in 1623 the memory of his works began to fade.

Fellow poets and devotees of his work came together to recall as much as they could – a seemingly impossible task.

Mr Al Hine, also a poet, had come from Al Ain for his virtual encounter with bin Dhaher at the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival.

And it was the section devoted to the poet that captivated him most at this year’s festival, says the father of 10.

“I didn’t know we had such a poet in the UAE,” says Mr Al Hine, who was a teenager when he fell in love with this literary form.

“Poetry was flowing in my veins. Such festivals are windows to the past. You get to educate yourself about your country’s past and its rich heritage.”

Some say bin Dhaher came from Ras Al Khaimah, while others believe he was from Sharjah.

At the heritage festival at the Al Wathba camel track, the poet is one of the main attractions in the desert environment section. The display illustrates his achievements and reflects the cultural diversity to which he was exposed during his life.

This year’s festival is being held under the patronage of the President, Sheikh Khalifa, with the support of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.

It focuses on four areas that have shaped life in the UAE – desert, oases, the sea and mountains.

Running until December 12, the festival examines the pivotal role that people from the past have played in preserving the nation’s history. Horses, camels and falcons are also integral parts.

Mr Al Hine, 44, is exactly the type of person the festival aims to attract.

“I might do further research on bin Dhaher and learn more about him,” he says.

Along Al Wathba Road banners promoting the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival guide visitors of all ages and from all walks of life.

Some stop to gaze at a giant banner of sea-life hung next to one entrance, but it is Sheikh Zayed of whom most speak. The festival is seen as a fitting tribute to the wisdom and vision of the founding President.

As with many heritage festivals, it aims to offer insights into life in the past. It is a reminder that while we enjoy the benefits of modern life, the UAE’s rapid development is no coincidence, but a legacy of the insight of the country’s forefathers.

What catches the eye of Kabeer Jamal is another display, this time devoted to Ahmed bin Majid. Strolling through the Emirati navigator’s life story, Mr Jamal, from Tamil Nadu in India, says he is pleased to learn about such an influential character in maritime history.

Even though he has spent most of his youth in the country, he says he does not know much about it, so one of the aims of visiting the festival is to better understand the country.

“The festival is good,” Mr Jamal says. “You learn a lot from such festivals.”

Just how much hard work had to be done by those of earlier generations to provide for their families also becomes clear during a walk through the festival.

A section devoted to the falaj, the ancient irrigation system of Al Ain, shows how the first people managed the flow of underground water and educates visitors on the crucial role falaj played in developing the area for agriculture.

In the mountain section is a reconstruction of Fujairah’s Al Bidya historic mosque. The 568-year-old building, believed to be the smallest and oldest surviving mosque in the country, does not resemble a modern-day place of worship. But the reconstruction makes clear the building’s religious purpose.

Among the thousands of visitors is Njood Al Yosfi, 19, who has been to the festival three years in a row. This year’s event has exceeded all her expectations, she says.

“In Al Wathba area there are more Bedouin,” says the first-year student at Zayed University. “These groups of people hold on to their past and are less affected by modernisation.

“It is a great thing that the festival is being held in Al Wathba. It will give this area a good reputation and also give it a chance to be known by other emirates.”

Shamma Al Menhali, 8, is also fascinated by the many framed images of the UAE’s past, which are spread around the festival.

Despite her youth, she understands Sheikh Zayed’s pivotal role in uniting the seven emirates as one country. “I like the many frames found in the festival,” Shamma says shyly. “I love Baba Zayed, too.”

Published: December 3, 2014 04:00 AM


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