Monday, December 5, 2011

40th UAE National Day

Celebration on the Corniche
These guys wouldn't have been able to do this
if they had been drinking.
The weeks leading up to the UAE’s 40th birthday as a nation were a series of spectacles. First we began noticing a few buildings decked out in flags and lights. Then we saw workers placing flags made of lights and the number “40” along the edges of the main streets and avenues, and in medians. By the week of the event, large private homes, government buildings, construction cranes, hotels, even buildings still under construction were swathed in enormous flags several stories high and stretching to the ground and decked out in lights. We live next to the Al Bateen airport, which is used by the royal family, government officials, and the military. Each day we heard helicopters and saw groups of fighter jets flying in formation, practicing for the official National Day ceremony. One afternoon their contrails were the colors of the Emirati flag.
The Palace Hotel was beautifully lit, including laser lights shooting from the dome.
The flag on the Hilton Dubai was understated.

Most lights were in Emirati flag colors, but not all.

My favorite image of Zayed
Yet nothing compares to the way they decorate their vehicles. As the big day drew near we saw more and more cars decorated to the hilt. As with other countries in this part of the world, images of leaders past and current are displayed in the most prominent public places. So the favorite way to show the spirit of the UAE, other than the flag, is to plaster glittery transparencies of these images on vehicles, surrounded by hearts and stars. Everywhere we go we are greeted with the faces of Sheikh Khalifa the President, the late Sheikh Zayed, founding father of the country, and others. Many of the images show them with regal, pensive expressions, but my favorite is the one with Zayed wearing sunglasses and grinning broadly.
We decided we wanted to go to the official ceremony at the Zayed Sports City Stadium. Even though I knew it could be a painful experience, I went ahead and looked online to see if we could get tickets. The official website said they were free to all “residents,” two per person. Since Mark, Dana, and Tom all have resident visas, I figured we should be able to get tickets. When I tried to sign up online, one of the required pieces of information was a P.O. Box, which none of us has yet. No worries, the website said you can go to one of several malls and pick up tickets in person.
Mark and Tom in line. You can wait a long time
 and accomplish absolutely nothing.
That night Mark, Tom and I took the three passports to the Khalidiyah Mall and found the booth, with a pretty short line, which we joined. The guys in front of us were in national dress, and as friendly as could be. Yes, they said, we should be able to get tickets.

After waiting for about 30 minutes, during which time we bought National Day t-shirts, the guy behind the booth said “We are closed! No more tickets today, we are out. We will have more tomorrow. Come back at 10:00 a.m.” I explained that I would be back with my friend and the husbands’ passports, because they had to go to work tomorrow. No problem!
By the way, it’s always a good to mention the word “husband” when you want to get something done around here. It gives your wishes more clout, as in “We’re here to get our husbands’ tickets,” which is what I planned for Deb and me to say the next morning. Use whatever greases the wheels.
The next day Deb and I showed up right on time, but boy, was it a different scene. First, there was no line. Instead there were two clusters, one white and one black, pressed up to the guy behind the counter. The same guy was behind the counter, tapping a laptop computer using one finger, no mouse. After several minutes during which nothing happened, he finally started taking information from one person. About 10 minutes later he handed over a pile of tickets. Then one more person was given a large stack of tickets after another 10 minutes went by.
We talked with one of the two or three other women dressed in Western style, who said she was Spanish, and told me that she had registered for the tickets online, but didn’t get a confirmation. No number, no receipt to print. The instructions on the website were to pick up the tickets at a mall. It seemed that the crowd had just figured out that they needed to give ticket guy their information, so they all began furiously writing names in Arabic on slips of paper and pushing them toward him. Deb and I weren’t sure what to do because we wanted to get the tickets, but in the end we had to call it off. I suspected that everyone there had already registered online and I didn’t really think that guy would have given us tickets just on the basis of our husbands’ passports, no matter what he had told us the night before.
I felt too discouraged, after all we’d been going through regarding our visas, to wait in line for the next several hours to find out that we wouldn't get tickets. We had another goal to accomplish that was visa-related, so we wanted to save our energy. As it turned out, we didn’t accomplish that task either, but at this point you don’t need to read about it and I don’t need to write about it. It’s the Never Ending Story.

The colors symbolize fertility (green) peace (white)
oil (black) and strength (red.) I've read other variations;
these colors are used in the flags of other Arab nations.
The Big Day
We knew that after the ceremony the celebration would move to the Corniche, which is the waterfront, so we planned to meet at Tom’s and stay overnight. As we were driving there, Mark and I saw an Emirati flag that appeared to be floating in midair over the city. Mark thought it was going to land in the road ahead of us, until we realized that it was much further up than it looked, and was being towed by a helicopter. It was the world’s largest airborne flag, on its way to the official celebration.
While we were having drinks and munching on olives we could smell something delicious grilling somewhere nearby. Someone knocked on the door and it was Sirani, the Sri Lankan maid who lives in Tom’s garage apartment, with a dish of delicious grilled chicken, potatoes, and rice! It turned out to be a good thing we had that food because it would be a long time until we ate dinner.
The heart is a favorite symbol.
As we were leaving the compound, two fighter jets to the southeast of us dove, separated, and circled back up to draw a heart, which is a favorite symbol the Emiratis use to show their love for leaders and country. So we did get to see a small part of the official ceremony.
We decided to take taxis to the Hilton which is at the west end of the Corniche and walk east, ending up back in Tom’s neighborhood. At first the taxi drivers balked when they heard where we wanted to go, because they thought we wanted to join the cars driving along the Corniche. But they agreed to take us the back way. We stopped in at Hemingway’s, which is a favorite expat drinking hole located in the Hilton, for a little liquid refreshment.
Impromptu street dances were breaking out.
Here's the link to the video:

By the time we got out onto the Corniche it was getting dark and the celebration was really getting rolling. I had already noticed on a walk that Mark and I had taken along the Corniche the public spaces everywhere, and family groups were set up all along the Corniche for miles –or, kilometers. They had brought chairs, tables, blankets, food … and hookahs.
This type of smoking has several names, but I like the word “shisha.” It’s an ancient tradition in the Middle East, enjoying a resurgence here but also becoming popular elsewhere. In fact, there’s a place called Caterpillar’s Hookah Lounge in downtown Carson City, Nevada – a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Tobacco is heated by coals and smoked in a water pipe with a long tube. I saw some very large and ornate hookahs, and watched a couple of them being lit. Sometimes it’s really hard not to stare in fascination, and I would have loved to take photos, but I’m being careful about how I use my camera. Wanting to know more, I looked on what is becoming a favorite website for information on all things UAE. Might have to put that on my “to try” list. I took my last puff of tobacco in 1981.
Falcons, once important for hunting food, are revered.
Flags were big everywhere.

As the night wore on things got noisy and crazy. Children were spraying foam, water, silly string, and confetti out of cans and throwing them on the ground. There was dancing in the street. But mostly it was really just a big car cruise, families with children in SUVs and young Emirati men in expensive sports cars. The most striking thing, other than the sheer joy that people were expressing, was the complete lack of drunkenness and, consequently, lack of violence or threat of any kind. In the U.S. and other places where drinking is part of the social fabric, some degree of violence occurs in many large public celebrations, particularly ones involving so many young men, but not here. People here don’t drink in public, don’t go out in public drunk, and are not allowed to carry guns and knives.
The paraders were mainly 20-something men.
We didn’t see young Emirati women in abayas and sheylas (head scarves) celebrating exuberantly the way the men were. Emirati women are reserved, and their national dress makes them virtually unapproachable. How can you exchange smiles with someone whose face is covered? The only ones I have spoken to so far are those who work in places like the medical centers or government offices; they’re always friendly and helpful. But I would love an opportunity to get to know an  Emirati woman and find out about her life and what she thinks about. I’ve seen a few at the pool in our compound. They come with their children and often their husband. Dressed in abaya and sheyla, they sit and wait while the children play.
We expected fireworks but they never happened. We did hear, as it got late, loud popping sounds which we thought were fireworks but decided were just cars backfiring, or maybe firecrackers.
Would you express your national spirit in this way?
How about this?
We finally ducked into The Tavern at the Sheraton and rehydrated a bit, then walked to our favorite restaurant in Tom’s neighborhood, Food City. The menu there has four types of food: Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Lebanese. By the time we left, it was midnight and people were crowding into the restaurant, which is small, waiting for our table. This is normal – Tom says the neighborhood gets crowded with people beginning about 10 p.m. and stays crowded into the wee hours.

The next morning I read about the official ceremony in the paper , and I really wished we had been there. It sounded incredible. Yet, another part of me thinks that it wasn’t meant to be. The celebration was about the Emirates, for Emiratis. I wonder how many expats were there. For us, maybe there will be another one next year. Inshallah.
Meanwhile, it inspires me to visit the ongoing exhibits and learn more about this fascinating place.
It got late. We got hungry and thirsty.


No comments: