Tribal passions on show as Emiratis unite in National Day joy

Thousands of tribesmen from all corners of the Emirates stepped out in unison for March of the Union in Abu Dhabi

When Saeed Alwan was 10 years old, he and his family set out for a new capital city.

They left the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah at sunset and crossed Al Maqta bridge at dawn. The year was 1972.

They had come to represent the Habus tribe at the country’s first National Day celebration in Abu Dhabi, a union of tribes from sea, desert and mountains unimaginable only a few years before.

“It was my whole family, not just my brothers and uncles,” said Mr Alwan. “There were 200 of us, in Range Rovers.”

On Tuesday, Mr Alwan returned to Abu Dhabi in a tribal convoy for the second time in his life. He was one of 6,000 tribesmen in Al Wathba for the March of the Union, a state organised tribal party for 104 tribes held as part of the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival.

This time, Mr Alwan’s journey from Ras Al Khaimah was a three-hour drive down a smooth motorway in an air- conditioned SUV. The Habus were greeted with a map to their designated tent and a placard to carry in the afternoon march at the open area theatre outside Sheikh Zayed Heritage Village.

As the 70 members of his tribe relaxed before the event, Mr Alwan recalled his visit of 1972. The Habus were hosted in the grounds of Al Menhal Palace and awestruck by a military parade and a city in the midst of a building boom.

For the desert tribesmen of Abu Dhabi, it was a shock to hear the nadbah war cry of the northern mountain tribes for the first time, which were given in thanks to their host, the Founding President Sheikh Zayed, for a delicious goat feast. Today, the nadbah is a symbol of Emirati culture, thanks in part to gatherings that have unified the culture of tribes in the Emirates.

“We slept in goat hair tents but we hardly slept at all for we were too excited,” he said. “We danced, we ate, we celebrated.”

The latest March of the Union had all of the elements of a traditional tribal party: the entrance of the tribes, horse racing, men standing atop galloping camels while twirling rifles, and the recitation of rousing poetry.

This was presented with the choreographed structure of a state event, attended by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud Al Qasimi, the Crown Prince of Ras Al Khaimah.

Patriotic pride, pomp and ceremony were on full display during the March of the Union. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Patriotic pride, pomp and ceremony were on full display during the March of the Union. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Each tribe entered the gates of the theatre chanting its traditional music. Traditionally, families one at a time and each has its turn to present itself to the hosting family. At the March of the Union, the tribes marched at once, their cries rising into an inaudible cacophony. Each was led by a tribesman carrying a placard with the tribe’s name, some preceded by sword dancers or followed by tribesmen waving iqal or portraits of the Sheikhs.

After more than 6,000 tribesmen entered, a nadba was performed and the horse and camel racing began.

But much bonding was done in the hours before the event, when the tribesmen performed for each other.

At noon, the Bawazeer tribesmen lowered their khanjar daggers into their sheaths after a series of dances and the Baharna lifted their voices in song. Theirs was a performance without accessories or instruments, no sticks to swing, no drums to beat.

“No drums, no sticks, only us,” said Saleh Bin Jaafar, 45, one of the Bawazeer.

This was a song with ancient rhythm but 21st century lyrics about the unity of the Emirates.

The Bawazeer tribe is known for poetic lyrics, a nod to its roots in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia.

Once the television cameras stopped rolling, they sang a far older melody referencing the legendary Arabic love story of Laila and the Majnoon.

“It’s kind of like a fairy tale,” said Mr Bin Jaafar.

This was followed by a tune about a lovestruck man, who pleads with the birds to sing. “He’s talking to the birds,” translated one of the singers, Ahmed Al Wahedi. “He’s telling the birds to sing and saying, ‘I cannot sleep at night, even if I pray for sleep, for my heart is too full of love’.”

In the nearby tent of the Socotri tribe, Easa Huwash, 60, told his companions how he had arrived in Ajman with his uncles in 1970 on a wooden ship from Socotra, the Yemeni archipelago. He motioned to the young men before him performing a bedu desert dance. “Yet, these are all sons of the Emirates and few have ever seen Socotra.”

After decades here, its lyrics and rhythm had changed to that of a desert melody.

Updated: December 4, 2019 10:37 AM


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