Two weeks after we arrived in Abu Dhabi we moved into Sama Tower, one of the tallest residential towers in the city. The NYUAD students, faculty and staff live here, and the Health and Wellness Center is here along with the dining hall and several floors of administrative offices. Sama is located on a major intersection, and although we are only halfway up the tower, the views from our 26th floor windows are expansive. The low-rise residential section of Al Bateen is off to the South, and to the North we catch glimpses of the new high rises lining the Corniche. Straight ahead to the West we can see more towers and the white domes of the new Presidential Palace. When the sun sets the waters of the Arabian Gulf are on fire. But directly below us is this large, ugly, city block of mostly nothing - lots of dirt, a couple dozen dusty palm trees, a patch of grass, a few structures, and in the corner something that looks like a fort.
The entire block is ringed with a 20-ft. tall barrier, so at street level you can see nothing. I pulled out my city map and learned the largest building was the Cultural Center, which perked me right up. That's exactly what I was looking for, right? But as I surveyed the site it was obvious that nothing was happening there. The lot was deserted. I felt a bit depressed because it seemed to me that this place had potential, that it must mean something.
Then during the Holidays things changed. One day I looked out my window and saw a veritable army of workers. From morning till night trucks rolled in and Bobcats - lots of them - were busy clearing out areas. "What in the world?" I wondered.
People of a certain age will remember the short-lived children's show, Fraggle Rock, which aired in the 80's. The Rock was populated, in part, by the Doozers, tiny little creatures who were constantly building. We never knew exactly what they were building..... but they were always hard at work with their machines, scaffolding and tools.
Jeff was visiting with us when this all began, and we jokingly began referring to all the workers and machines as Doozers, since that is what they looked like from the distance.
Big signs appeared on the walls surrounding the area announcing the Qasr al Hosn Festival which would run February 21st - March 1st. The Doozers cleared a large area in one corner of the lot, and then in the space of two days they erected an enormous tent. In the opposite corner a large parking lot was carved out and paved over. Next I watched as a small pond was dug and filled adjacent to the tent. Now my curiousity was really piqued. "Hmmmm", I thought, "whatever this is, it's a pretty big deal".
Early this month the advertising began in earnest for the Festival. Articles appeared in Time Out Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Week. The Festival had a website up and running with all the details. What I read made me smile:
Tucked away under the capital's familiar high rises and surrounded by the bustling sounds of the streets filled with traffic there stands a piece of history. The oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, the Qasr al Hosn fort, has become the symbolic birthplace of the city.
I mean how ironic. Here I was wondering where is the history, where are the historical sites, and THE most significant historical site was literally beneath my window!
I read that the festival's purpose is to honor this structure and celebrate the history and culture of the Emirati people with exhibitions, demonstrations, guided tours of the fort (under renovation), lectures, and a special stage show called Cavalia. There was no way in the world that I was going to miss this!
I bought tickets for Cavalia which included admission to the entire Festival, and last night Doug and I walked across the street and through the gates. Magic!
The Festival site had cleverly been divided up into several themed areas: Desert, Oasis, Abu Dhabi Island, Marine, Qasr Al Hosn fort, Qasr Al Hosn Exhibition, Cultural Foundation, and the Cavalia Show (tent). At the entrance and scattered throughout the site were information kiosks. We stopped by one and picked up several booklets. The person we spoke with was very enthusiastic about the Festival and showed us a schedule of workshops that we could attend. They included Storytelling, Burga Making, Kendura Dying, Palm Weaving, Gahwa (Coffee Making), Henna, Traditional Cooking, Fishnet Making, and more. There were workshops specially designed for children, and there was also a lecture series every evening and poetry performances.
What would a festival be without food? There was lots of traditional food to be had, and I loved the seating areas that were set up with the low tables and cushions on the sand. Note the palm frond fences. The most common trees are mango (by the Arabian Sea) and date palms, so this is the building material that was traditionally used for building. The fort is in the background.
Doug and I strolled the Festival grounds. It was so thoughtfully laid out and designed from the very fine sand that had been trucked in to cover the entire site, to the lighting, to the wave machine in the middle of the lake that sent gentle waves rippling to the shore. Speakers tucked into the tops of palm trees provided bird sounds in the oasis, and over at the marine area we heard the sound of the sea and sea gulls.
Each of the themed areas (oasis, desert, Abu Dhabi Island & Marine) had its own souk filled with goods such as clothing, coffee, honey, jewelry, and decorated wooden boxes such a the ones in this photo. And everywhere was the scent of incense.
Throughout the Festival grounds these very helpful signs were to be found written in both English and Arabic.
These men are demonstrating how to shuck oysters. Pearl diving was an important industry along the Arabian Gulf until the Japanese discovered how to culture pearls.
Alongside the man-made lake Doug and I paused to watch craftsmen constructing a boat. A young Emirati man standing nearby offered that the men were building the boat in the traditional way using only hand tools. I asked some questions about the boat which he answered, and then he told me that he was from the desert but that when he arrived, "somehow they ended up putting me here". He shrugged his shoulders and then laughed saying, "but hey, I've learned a lot from these guys". I loved that he came to the Festival as a volunteer expecting to teach others about his desert life but instead ending up learning about a part of his culture that was new to him. He and I both agreed that sometimes "mistakes" turn out for the better.
These men are making fishing nets. The fish most commonly caught in the Arabian Gulf is hamour, a kind of grouper. If there is seafood on a menu, it will always include hamour.
Doug and I wandered the festival for an hour and a half before heading to the tent for Cavalia. The show was created by Normand Latourelle, one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil, and featured over 40 trained horses, 36 riders, aerialists, acrobats and musicians. The show's set, costumes and music were tailored to reflect Emirati culture. The horses were already a perfect fit. I grew up next door to a family that bred and showed Arabian horses, and I went to many horse shows with them. As a teenager I saved up my babysitting money and bought my own horse, Pasha, who was half Arabian and half quarter horse. I read every horse book I could get my hands on, especially the ones about Arabians. So going into Cavalia, I knew the high regard Arabs hold for horses.
The show was a very fast-paced, and in typical Cirque du Soleil style, one act flowed into the next without a pause. The focus was on the horses. One of the most mesmerizing acts was when a trainer came out with 8 magnicent Arabian horses that galloped round him, switching direction, then pausing to cluster near him before tearing off again. These were not your typical circus horses that trot docilly in a circle with a feather plume on their forehead. No, these horses were full of fire, tossing their heads and nipping at each other, ears bared back at times, and kicking up their heels. I knew these horses were amazingly well-trained, but at the very same time they were wild, vibrant creatures. Doug is not a horse person, but he came away from the show just raving about it.
I pulled this photo from the Cavalia website because of course no photography was allowed..... even though everyone seemed to ignore that request. At the end of the show the performance area was filled partway with water, and horses and riders galloped through it madly, soaking the front row of the audience. This photo gives you a sense of the abandon of the horses in the show.
After the show Doug and I walked over to the fort for a tour. Because of the sensitivity of the site, they were not allowing people to walk through on their own. Instead they took groups of 12-15 through with a guide. This was the highlight of our evening because, after all, the Festival was in honor of this structure and its history.
This is one of my favorite photos of Abu Dhabi. Note the date in the upper-left corner: 1955. All there was to the island at that time was the fort, some small coral buildings close to shore, palm huts and a few scattered palm trees. The city I see out my window was constructed in its entirety during my lifetime.
We had a lovely, young Emirati woman as our guide. She explained that centuries ago Bedouins from the Bani Yas tribe of the Liwa Oasis would come in from the desert to fish, but they could not live there permanently for lack of fresh water. That changed in the mid 1700's when fresh water was discovered on the island of Abu Dhabi, and a small settlement was established. in the 1760's Sheikh Dhiyab Bin Isa of the Bani Yas tribe constructed a watch tower out of coral and sea stone for the purpose of controlling access to the island and protection. As the community grew, walls were added to the tower to make a fort. Further enlargements were made over the subsequent centuries, and finally in the 1900's, after the discovery of oil in the Gulf, a palace was constructed within the walls. The royal family ultimately moved elsewhere to a larger, more modern residence, and the fort was used for a time to house important documents and collections about the UAE and Gulf region.
A drawing of the original watch tower. There was no door at ground level or stairs, but both were added later and remain today.
Now the fort is empty and not being used. Instead archeologist and preservationists are studying the structure so that hopefully it will remain standing for centuries to come. Our guide told us that they are hoping the UN will designate it a World Heritage Site.
In the 1980's a white gypsum and cement render was applied over the original coral and sea rock tower and walls for aesthetic purposes and to make the fort stronger. Unfortunately it was later found to be trapping moisture, causing the structure to degrade. Now preservationists are carefully chiseling away the render.
One tidbit of information I found especially interesting had to do with a small building that sits adjacent to the fort. I learned it was built by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahayn solely for the purpose of holding discussions to unite the six Emirates into one nation.
Honestly, even as I write this I shake my head thinking back to October when I moved to Abu Dhabi, looked out my window and wondered where are the historical sites? Where can I look to find the history of this place?
And now I know.