A peek into Emirati culture: The Qasr al Hosn Festival

I frequently forget that I’m living in the Middle East. I’m surrounded by familiar brands and foods, with all the comforts of Western living. Of the 2.33 million people living in Abu Dhabi, only 475,000 are Emiratis; the rest are workers from all around Asia, and a large Western expat community.

It’s events like the Qasr al Hosn Festival that remind me of where I am. There aren’t many times where you can see so many locals together in one place; the Emiratis are really supportive of their culture. It’s also a rare opportunity to freely take pictures of the locals; usually you have to get express permission, especially of their women.

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“Qasr al Hosn represents the foundation of the nation’s capital and symbolizes more than two and a half centuries of Emirati heritage and cultural development.”

A lot of the outdoor events here are held later in the afternoon and close way later than we’d be used to, to make sure that no one is getting cooked under the sun. The Qasr al Hosn Festival opens at 4pm and ends at 11pm; even the kids stay up late! One thing I didn’t understand was the 10 dhs ($2.70) entrance fee. It’s too little to cover any sort of expense such an extravagant affair, and they definitely weren’t looking to make any money.

The Qasr al Hosn area is closed off the rest of year, so although it was in a location I’m familiar with, I had no idea there was such a big fort there. There’s a guided tour every 10 minutes, but we decided to skip it as there were so many other things to see!

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Qasr al Hosn Fort

The workshop and activities area was split into three sections, desert, oasis and marine. They actually created a mini desert in the middle of the city; in fact, there was so much sand I had to stop every minute or so to empty the sand from my shoes. In the desert section were a variety of indigenous animals. They really went out of their way to get visitors to interact with the animals.

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Getting chummy with a camel!

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The saluki, a common Emirati hunting dog.

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The Emiratis love falcons, which is also the national bird of the UAE.

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I’m not sure what this bird is called, but my man called it a desert chicken”

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Probably not an Arabian horse, but still a beauty.

The marine section featured a mini manmade marina and showcased traditional skills like shipbuilding, fishnet making and pearl diving…with some modern touches of course.

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Only in the UAE can you find a manmade marina built just for a festival…

Pearl-diving was a major industry in Abu Dhabi before oil. After the Japanese started cultivating pearls, the pearl industry took a nosedive and never recovered. However, they’re now into the business of pearl cultivation in collaboration with (ironically) the Japanese. It takes two years for a pearl to form after inserting foreign tissue, and they have an 80% success rate.

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Tools of the trade

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Net worn around the neck while pearl diving

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Mr. Hamada hard at work cutting tissue out from a donor oyster.

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Transferring tissue with surgical precision to oysters that will be producing the pearl.

The festival offers workshops for adults and children, including traditional cooking, henna, making your own unique fragrance, making fishnets and more. You could literally spend all day there and still have things to do. It was also interesting to see the way things were done, and are still done in some of the emirates, before all that oil and money.

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Women working on embroidery.

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Man working on fishnets.

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Emirati men dancing. I hear that on National Day, you could get randomly pulled into one of these dancing circles. Not if you’re a woman, of course.





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Emirati soldiers.

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Traditional market, or souk, selling local arts and crafts

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Tim and an old school Land Rover. Someone important probably drove that car, because the license plate only has 3 numbers! These days, 3-digit licence plates can go for up to a million AED, or about $270,000!

Because we were too busy looking around, I only signed up for the henna workshop. Having done henna once before, I was interested in what goes into the process.

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This is the henna tree. The leaves are laid out to dry in the sun before it can be used.


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Next, you ground the leaves into smaller pieces.

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Then you rub the leaves through a fine cloth stretched over a bowl, resulting in a fine, green powder that kind of looks like matcha. After mixing the powder with dry lemon rinds for that brown color, it creates a dark brownish green paste.

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The paste is then applied to the skin. Traditionally it’s applied to the fingers and hands, and around the ankles for special occasions.

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The paste takes about half an hour to dry. After it’s dry, you just rub it off with a tissue and then rinse with water. Because I didn’t hold my palm flat the entire time (it’s hard!) round part kind of smeared into the rays, so it ended up looking like a spider. It’s already starting to fade, so I assume it doesn’t last as long as the new henna formulas.

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The henna I had done at the Central souk was from a tube, and was much darker in color. There are also black ones, but I’ve been told that it can burn skin and may contain carcinogens.

I really enjoyed the exhbition at the Festival, showcasing the oral history of Qasr al Hosn as well as the “Lest We Forget” project. This project brought together private photographs of people living in Abu Dhabi from 1958-1999. The pictures really brought home the fact that just 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was no different than any other desert. The discovery of oil turned everything upside down and changed the lives of all Emiratis.

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Lest we forget

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I couldn’t resist taking a picture of this insanely cool baby!

We were also asked to take part in the project by taking a picture to put up on the wall of the exhibition. It was a little awkward because we weren’t allowed to do the usual poses like putting our arms around each other; remember, PDA is a big no-no!

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Tim & Emily, Feb. 28, 2014

Last but not least, food! We only nibbled because we went after dinner; I admit, I was worried that they were going to make me eat things with my hands again.

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This is called “khameeh”, a type of Emirati bread with honey. The bread was warm and the honey good.

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Wish it was earlier so I could’ve had some qahwa!

Notice that the mineral water is only 2 AED ($0.54), even though this is one of those places where they could easily mark it up. Local water is 2 AED everywhere, even restaurants and movie theaters. We theorize this could be an actual law to prevent dehydration; this is, after all, the desert.

The Qasr al Hosn Festival ended today, but it’ll be back next year. This year we skipped the Cavalia horse show, and we didn’t get to see it during the day. I’m looking forward to doing more workshops next year and looking around that fort!