Friday, December 3, 2010

Now that's what I call a holiday

I graduated from a high school in Texas that was very rich in tradition, a large part of that tradition centering on, you guessed it, football (American, that is). During football season, rituals surrounding each game (Practices, pep-rallies, pre-game dinners, prayers, post-game dinners) were followed religiously by everyone involved. And even if we lost a game, nothing gave us greater pride than singing the school song beneath those lights on the field.

Several years after my graduation, a new high school, called Reagan, was formed in our district, a bit further north in town. Many faculty members, coaches and students were annexed into the new school, some likely without consent, and I have to wonder what kind of school spirit was present in those early years. The school board must have sat around and chosen a mascot, the colors, and a song. And I guess whatever happened the first year probably became tradition by the second year. In order to survive against its rivals on the football field or other arena, the school must have been forced to fabricate an identity for its students as quickly as possible.

I think of the UAE sometimes as that new, shiny high school, suddenly coming into existence and having to compete like it had been around forever, and needing a national identity that would unite its citizens beyond cultural or tribal ties that previously bound them. By necessity, like the board at Reagan High, the founders of the UAE too had to choose a flag, a national anthem, a bird, and other symbols that would one day would elicit pride from its people. The day on which they began this process was December 2, 1971, UAE National Day, the date of the region’s independence from the British Empire and the beginning of the formation of the seven emirates into one nation.

Last year we were in Beijing on UAE National Day and so while we witnessed the build-up in the days before, namely the decorating of cars and buildings in flags and images of the sheikhs (as shown here), we missed the day itself.

We’d heard that it is quite a scene in Abu Dhabi, especially along the water’s edge (the Corniche), so this year we made it our intention to witness it. Yesterday, we made our way from our apartment to the Corniche on foot, camera in tow, to record our findings on the ground.

Now, imagine the Fourth of July, Halloween, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Christmas, New Year's Eve in Times Square, and let's say, the streets of Boston on the night the Red Sox won the World Series, all rolled into one night on a small island in the middle of the Arabian Gulf, and there you have UAE National Day. Okay, that might be slightly exaggerated, but there were certainly elements of each of these celebrations present throughout the evening. And it was pandemonium, pure and simple.

We finally understood the reason for the decorated cars, as the highway along the Corniche had been transformed into a parade route, each car becoming a float of sorts. The cars were not only decorated but their engines suped up. Combined with the horns and noisemakers they were all carrying, the result was very, very loud.

Rather than smile and wave at the crowd lining the streets, the parade participants were armed with endless amounts of silly string, spray foam, and confetti, which they used to raid each other's cars as they rode from one end of the Corniche to the other. 

The young Emiratis, many decked out in crazy wigs, hats and masks, rode atop many of the cars so they could jump off at a moment's notice to take part in this celebratory warfare.

While thousands of expatriate laborers, who finally had a day off, looked on in amusement, or perhaps bemusement.

As the afternoon turned into evening, exquisite light displays on buildings and along the corridors began to show up against the dark sky.

And the event took on a carnival-like feel, with rides and musicians, large families eating picnics on the grass, kids chasing each other in the sand, and older kids setting off firecrackers. We missed it, but apparently there was a fireworks display later on. We have to hand it to the UAE; maybe they haven't been around all that long, but they know how to throw a party. And they seem to have achieved that all-important "school spirit," as national pride was tangible in the air.


  1. Pretty cool! Can you imagine what next year's will be like when the UAE turns 40? UAE is as old (or young) as Ryan!

  2. Having been on the Corniche, I can picture the whole scene vividly. It's been a year since Beijing??

  3. Exactly Abu Dhabi is a complete package tour. Not only you but the all persons who use to visit Abu Dhabi must say" Now this is what I call Holidays" Abu Dhabi holidays are enjoyable and pretty cool place for vacations.