Celebrating tradition: Al Dhafra Festival

Visitors to the Al Dhafra festival can expect to be entertained with local crafts, a traditional souk, a camel beauty contest, poetry, music and a food bazaar of authentic Emirati cuisine

Lamb slow cooking over campfires, frankincense wafting through the night air, a glassy sea of dunes undulating into the distance and a herd of black camels traversing the sands. With its stark beauty and powerful emptiness, the desert of the UAE holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the region’s people.

“Today, even though our country competes with the civilised world in every aspect in terms of advancement and progress, the philosophy of the desert holds a great draw to us, exciting us and making us long to return to it whenever we can,” explains Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, chairman of the Cultural Programs and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi.

Marked by warmth, charm and a rich commitment to Emirati cultural heritage, the Al Dhafra celebration has brought a slice of Bedouin life to festival-goers for the past seven years. Running for two weeks this month, Al Dhafra is inspired in form and content by the authentic Bedouin spirit, displaying traditions such as camel racing and offering prizes worth more than Dh46 million.

Throughout the world, indigenous crafts play a significant role in preserving and reviving the heritage of ancient cultures and the Souk at Al Dhafra - a splendid showcase of food and handicrafts such as pottery and jewellery making – is no exception. Some 180 shops have been built in the traditional way using mud, wood and palm fronds to display the wares of an enthusiastic group of designers and makers.

For the people of the UAE the fruit of the palm tree is revered as both a historical and contemporary symbol of the region. It’s no surprise that the annual Dates Mazayna draws a fascinated following of participants and onlookers as it measures up the wares of the country’s best date farmers.

Camels, the ‘ship of the desert’, are another integral aspect of Bedouin life, providing transport, sustenance and entertainment too. At the festival thousands of the majestic animal take part in camel races, a camel milking competition and a camel beauty contest.

Falconry is another inherent aspect of the romance of the desert and a showcase of falconry skills here is another way to deepen the connection with forefathers. Speed and agility is celebrated on the ground too. Dating back 6,000 years, Bedouin’s kept dogs for hunting and salukis are regarded as the most ancient breed of domestic dog. Grace, speed, beauty and endurance were particularly valued in Bedouin culture and the Saluki Race event reveals more facets of the rich culture the people of the emirates draw upon today.

Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei comments: “The desert represents our cultural roots, and stands for the values that are important to us.” As the organisers of the festival know full well, a strong heritage makes for a firm foundation from which to step forward into the future.