Heritage Arts in the UAE

Heritage Arts in the UAEchildren dance
Traditional dance performances at the Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival (Nov-Dec 2014).

Before my Fulbright-mtvU grant comes to an end, I wanted to revisit the topic of heritage, since it is an active, shaping force in Emirati culture.

On the surface, heritage is an aggregation of images, sounds, smells, tastes, and narratives that are represented at public events, in physical spaces, in advertisement and public discourse, and in film and other media. Behind these representations is a desire for a cohesive narrative that links past and present, and for a distinctive and unified national identity.

Brochures from the Al Jahili Fort in Al-Ain describe traditional Emirati foods, handicrafts, songs and dances.

Cameramen film women who are weaving baskets as part of an exhibit at the Qasr Al-Hosn Heritage Festival (February 2015).

I initially thought of heritage as something performed for visitors and expats, meant to educate or to offer an authentic experience of Emirati culture. And it’s true that representations of heritage are displayed at festivals, museums and malls. But looking more closely, I noticed that the concept of heritage permeates Emirati spaces and discourse. It is packaged into graphic designs and development initiatives and accompanies expressions of national pride or identity.

A sign at the entrance to the Sheikh Zayed heritage features the phrase: “Our heritage is our identity… Zayed is our leader. The photos depict the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (center), the President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (left), and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right).

The importance of heritage also shapes the performance of local, traditional music and arts. When I arrived to the UAE, I looked for Arabic music scenes in Abu Dhabi that resembled what I’ve experienced in Cairo or Beirut. I kept an eye out for independent, Emirati musicians with a youthful following in local venues, who fused rhythms and instruments from the Arabian Peninsula with new sounds and musical technologies. But the most accessible settings for Emirati music turned out to be events celebrating Emirati heritage, culture, and national unity, and the groups performing at these events were officially sponsored but not widely known.

A troupe called Shabab al Ain performs at the Qasr Al-Hosn Heritage Festival (February 2015).

In one sense, the focus on heritage leads to the revitalization of traditional dances and rhythms (remember the ubiquity of Emirati dance troupes at many sorts of public events). It celebrates and brings these traditional arts into the public sphere as a source of pride rather than embarrassment. It even elevates them, and clarifies their separation from morally ambiguous contemporary musical genres. But at the same time, naming performances as heritage appears to hold back the creative artistic processes that mix, borrow and re-form. Focusing on heritage preserves “heritage arts,” and brings them into our midst, but it also fixes them in time, reinforcing their difference from that which is novel and contemporary.

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