An Emirati ‘majlis’ spreads out on the National Mall in Washington

This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival spotlights the culture of the UAE through Mideastern song, colorful tapestries and a falcon on the wrist

Children are invited to pet a falcon from the UAE at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall

On a scorching summer afternoon, tourists from around the world came to relax in the shade of the makeshift wooden majlis, Arabic for a sitting room, on the National Mall. The Washington Monument towered in the background.

Children picked up brushes to paint watercolor pictures of flowers, and women sampled natural perfumes from the other side of the world. An Emirati girl who was not yet a teenager held a falcon on her wrist, demonstrating the Bedouin discipline of handling the predatory bird. 

The dozens of interactive demonstrations and events were part of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that honors “contemporary living cultural traditions and celebrates those who practice and sustain them,” according to Smithsonian’s website. The 55-year-old event has featured dozens of countries and all 50 U.S. states.

This year’s festival, which was originally set to take place in 2020, spotlights the culture of the United Arab Emirates, and more than 90 participants flew in from the UAE to showcase the nation’s vibrant, diverse culture. (No special plane was needed for the falconry participants; travelers on Etihad Airways can bring a caged bird with them on the plane.) The festival runs from June 22-27 and again from June 30-July 4.

To the extent that foreigners are familiar with the Persian Gulf nation, home to 10 million people, they probably know about the towering skyscrapers of Dubai, the country’s thriving global business hub. But the booths, stages and majlis on the Mall aim to showcase something different: the unique, diverse culture of the coastal desert nation in which almost 90% of the inhabitants are expatriates belonging to more than 200 nationalities. 

“When [festivalgoers] read about the UAE, they will remember meeting these people, and seeing that they have a warm and relatable experience, and that they will be curious to go to the UAE,” said Michele Bambling, the co-curator of the festival and a professor at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. “They’ll read about the UAE with a sense of this place, of its creativity and its history, of their sense of belonging.”

Bambling, an American art historian who has lived in the UAE for 14 years, was tapped for her role after creating an initiative called “Lest We Forget,” which collects photographs and oral histories from older Emiratis to document the country’s Bedouin past, before it became the modern economic and cultural powerhouse it is today. 

“Rather than looking always at the West, why don’t you look into your own culture for your art making and to enrich yourselves?” Bambling asked. 

The center of the festival is the wooden majlis, which is a house-like structure that contains several comfortable sitting rooms for visitors to walk through and learn about different aspects of UAE culture. In one room, decades-old Arabic music plays on a vintage record player. In the next, a man weaves a detailed, ornate woven tapestry. 

Mona Haddad, a young woman mixing scents to create perfumes, learned the craft from her mother. “She learned from her mother. Her mother learned from her mother. It’s like something that goes through family,” Haddad told The Circuit

She used natural ingredients like amber, sandalwood, saffron, rosewood and oud. Haddad dabbed a bit of oil on her fingers and rubbed it behind one visitor’s ears, telling her the fresh scent would last for three days. 

In storytelling and poetry sessions, participants praised Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, known as the UAE’s founding father, who united the seven emirates — distinct territories with separate rules — into a single nation, marking the country’s birth in 1971. Sheikh Zayed’s son Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan became the third president of the UAE in May.

“I’ve taken the quote of Sheikh Zayed, ‘He who has no past has no present or future,’ and I translated it as a mission for my work, to connect people to the past through the medium itself,” said Azza Al Qubaisi, an Emirati artist who makes jewelry, sculptures and furniture. At the festival, she had taken thick slices of fiber from a date palm, which children were painting with bright colors. 

“The palm used to be our homes. It used to be the fiber of life. That’s how we survived in the desert,” Al Qubaisi explained. “Today, we’re so far away from that old way of living. I still wanted people to appreciate the beauty of the material itself.”

Visitors to the festival appeared eager to engage with the crafts and events. At a cooking demonstration, visitors asked detailed questions about how they might cook the preserved fish-and-rice dish at home: “Can we substitute butter for ghee?” (Yes, but it wouldn’t taste as good.) “What if you can’t find dried limes?” (Regular limes might work, but specialty grocery stores will probably have what you need.)

At Al Qubaisi’s table, it wasn’t just the kids who wanted to paint. “It’s so interesting to see the parents wanting to jump on the table before the kids,” she noted. 

Al Qubaisi lives in Abu Dhabi, but she has also lived in Fujairah, a more mountainous city on the Gulf of Oman. She brought her husband, who is Syrian, with her to the festival.

“I think what we’re trying to showcase at this festival is, yes, we’re a young country, 50 years old, but our cultural scene is very rich, vibrant and diverse,” said Hessa AlShuwaihi, head of communications at the UAE embassy in Washington. “We have UAE residents who are, for example, American, people from the Gulf, people from the Middle East region, but they call the UAE home. And then they came to D.C. to represent the UAE.”

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