The UAE is now inarguably a 21st-century nation, but its identity is underpinned by a rich variety of traditions that it is working hard to preserve, writes Amanda Fisher
It all starts with wool. Bundles and bundles of it, from sheep, goats or camels, shorn by men and assembled by women in a lengthy process that involves a drying period of several days before it can be put onto the loom. Woven into rich red squares with intricate geometric patterns, the wool is then made into cushions, rugs, or even saddlecloths for the camels from which it was sourced – lending the process a pleasing circularity.
Al Sadu weaving, a craft with roots steeped in Bedouin history, is one of the cultural elements of the United Arab Emirates that was deemed vital enough to be preserved in an official format.
As the Paris-based UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) prepares to consider another wave of submissions to its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the UAE continues to promote the four such traditions that have already been inscribed on UNESCO’s list: Al Sadu weaving, falconry, Al-Taghrooda poetry and Al-Ayyala performance.
Dubai’s Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre is one of the government organisations tasked with the stewardship of the country’s traditions. The centre’s Director of Championships, Souad Ibrahim Darwish, says the four UNESCO-listed traditions “represent a critical piece of our culture” and create a sense of unity among Emiratis by putting them in touch with the lives of their forefathers. “[They] offer an important window into our past as a nation and people,” he says.
Al Sadu weaving
The first UAE tradition recognised by UNESCO in 2011, Al Sadu formed the literal building blocks of Bedouin society. Animal wool, dyed and woven, was used to construct tents for the nomadic tribes, Darwish says. The weaving also provided decorations and soft furnishings for camel and horse saddles, easing the long treks by caravan that characterised much of historical life.
However, the modern world poses a threat to this tradition. In 2011, UNESCO estimated there were just 150-200 weavers left in the UAE, ranging in age from 50 to 70. As a consequence, Al Sadu is the only one of the four UAE traditions to feature on the smaller UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding (UNESCO’s equivalent of the list of endangered species).
Dr Nasser Al Humairi, the Intangible Heritage Department Director at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, says UNESCO recognition is critical to preserving Al Sadu for posterity. “With the rapid economic development that accompanied the emergence of oil in the UAE, Al Sadu dramatically diminished. Women stopped practising due to old age and decreasing demand [and] competition from similar woven products – local or imported – using modern machinery.”
This millennia-old sport originated in the Arabian peninsula and fanned out across the globe. Historically, people often depended on the falcons for a living, and this practice of using them for hunting continued after the birth of Islam.
To this day, falconry epitomises much about Emirati culture, Darwish says. “The falcon is a symbol of the UAE as it represents pride and fidelity. A well-trained falcon brings its hunt back to its owner as an act of loyalty.”
When it was recognised for its cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2012, the committee noted: “Falconry… is a social tradition respecting nature and the environment, passed on from generation to generation, and providing them [with] a sense of belonging, continuity and identity.”
Al-Taghrooda poetry and Al-Ayyala performances constituted the basis of social life in the desert. Historically, Al-Taghrooda was primarily recited by riders travelling on camelback across the vast desert expanses of the UAE and Oman, with the dual purpose of entertaining the men and helping the camels ride in time.
The short poems, improvised by the lead chanter and repeated by the rest of the group, are now performed on occasions such as weddings, camel races and around campfires. In its 2012 acceptance of the Al-Taghrooda submission, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage committee said the poetry “cements interpersonal, intergenerational and intercommunity lines”.