Qasr Al Hosn Festival volunteer tells of carefree idyll of his Abu Dhabi childhood

Visitors will be able to go on guided tours of parts of the fort, whose walls are being restored to remove a white gypsum facade that was added during renovations in the 1980s.

Cavalia at Qasr al Hosn hosts a media day before the opening of the Qasr al Hosn festival starting on Thursday February 20th in Abu Dhabi. Sammy Dallal / The National
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ABU DHABI // Among Rashid Al Shahi's favourite memories are working by the sea and swimming – he started when he was just five or six.

“The past was better than the present,” said Mr Al Shahi, 60, remembering a time when people didn’t have comforts like washing machines.

“The past, I’ll never forget it.”

Mr Al Shahi is volunteering at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival.

Butti Al Muhairi, a spokesman for the festival organising team, said the organisers hoped to improve the festival each year. This is the second year of the annual event.

“It’s totally changed from last year,” said Mr Al Muhairi.

He said it was among the biggest events for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), which is holding the festival.

The events will also include a historic re-opening of part of Qasr Al Hosn, the heritage site often considered the birthplace of Abu Dhabi. Visitors will be able to go on guided tours of parts of the fort, whose walls are being restored to remove a white gypsum facade that was added during renovations in the 1980s.

About 3,000 school children will attend the festival on field trips organised through Abu Dhabi Education Council, organisers said. About 250 university students are also volunteering as “ambassadors” to educate visitors about Emirati heritage.

All in all, the event requires the efforts of several hundred people.

“It’s a huge festival. We have a huge staff working on every small detail to make sure we deliver the right message to the people about Emirati culture,” said Mr Al Muhairi.

TCA has organised historical workshops, activities and performances by reaching out to contacts through its intangible heritage section as well as cultural groups and heritage or trade associations.

Male and female volunteers spoke with visitors under thatched roofs and on sandy walkways, surrounded by the towering skyline of modern Abu Dhabi, during the preview of the festival – which honours the original fort built more than 250 years ago. Qasr Al Hosn was first constructed by the Bani Yas tribes and is considered the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family.

Young men performed traditional dances or tended to camels while others attended to stalls in a souq or other exhibits.

Mr Al Muhairi said organisers have heard positive feedback from visitors so far.

“We received really beautiful comments from people who visited here today and through social media,” he said.

He said the festival would be “completely different” from last year.

“We wanted to improve things and change things for the people who came here last year.”

The preview also included excerpts from Cavalia at Qasr Al Hosn, the main attraction at this year's festival. The show's directors have adapted the horse and acrobatics performances to reflect UAE heritage in the multi-disciplinary production, which was created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle.

The show is the production’s first performance in the Middle East and features 50 horses and 50 international performers including riders, acrobats and musicians.

The festival opens Thursday to “VIP” visitors, until 8pm. On Friday, the events are open to women only and children under the age of 12.

The general public will be able to attend the festival on Saturday. It runs until March 1.

lcarroll@thenational.ae