Surrounded by some of the world's most expensive cars spray-painted and covered in creative stickers and bows in the national colours of red, green, white and black, I couldn't help but smile and feel inspired by the passionate display of national pride on the UAE's 37th National Day. I tried to honk along with the happy crowds of cars, not sure if it was Peep Peep Peeeeep, or a longer honk followed by two fast ones, as, believe it or not, there was a certain agreed-upon rhythm among the masses as they swarmed the streets singing and clapping along to Emirati songs.
As UAE flags danced with the wind and people waved them with such force from the windows of their cars and homes, I felt a sense of déjà vu: I have witnessed the same demonstrations of national pride before - but with different flags, at different times. In Lebanon, with the withdrawal of Syrian forces, the white and red Lebanese flag with the cedar tree was everywhere, even painted on cheesecakes and coffee drinks.
On Saudi Arabia's National Day, recently made a national holiday by King Abdullah, the green flag was worn by everyone, even the expatriates and labourers. And how do you know when you have entered a Palestinian refugee camp, or even a residential area where predominantly Iraqi refugees have moved to? Without fail, by the flags that hang from the balconies or are painted along the walls. I am not sure I see this kind of outward display of identification with the flag in, say, Europe or North America, unless there is a football match or the Olympics or some other sport-related event taking place.
But here in the Middle East it seems there need not be a specific international event for the flag to come out. There is a strong connection and attachment to it, perhaps because it is challenged here more often; or perhaps the Arab identity is still forming, or it feels threatened by the strong western influence of globalisation? "Because things here are unstable, and there is still conflict in the region, that is why we are so attached to our flag," was my Emirati friend's answer to that question. My grandmother, on the other hand, says the answer is easy: "We can still remember the people who died for that flag. Some Arab countries are not as old as most western ones."
Based on that, I suppose the younger the country, the more attached people would be to the flag. I know the former communist countries are also very attached and very nationalistic, perhaps because they feel reborn after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, some countries can disappear off the map for more than 100 years, and even lose a flag, but not lose their identity. That happened with Poland in the 18th century, divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria, until it returned as a republic in 1918.
Flags themselves, of course, are nothing new; people have been using them for more than 4,000 years. They were particularly useful on battlefields, where soldiers relied on flags and military emblems to differentiate their enemies from their friends - even after the advent of military uniforms, they often looked the same. Whatever the story behind the flags, it is remarkable to see how emotional people are about their country's flags. Burning flags has led to wars, and they are raised or lowered at times of victory or mourning.
At the end of the day, it is about identity, and how patriotic and nationalistic you feels towards your country. I feel a connection to several flags, as I come from such a mixed background: my father is Syrian-Lebanese, my mother is Polish and I'm a Canadian citizen. I think it is the same for a lot of people these days, living somewhere different from where they were born, and feeling a connection to the place.
From just a quick scan of who was joining in the celebrations of the UAE's national day, it wasn't just the Emiratis, it was everyone. People who just moved here, people who lived here for decades and even tourists who happened to be visiting the UAE at this special time. The UAE must also have broken some kind of record for a display of fireworks, when the skies were ablaze with colour for almost an hour.
Something happens to the air around us and to our mood when we are surrounded by festive cheers and happy smiles. It is contagious. As I head out now to Haj, I carry with me the images of people celebrating their national identity, to be soon complemented by a different kind of image - of millions of people celebrating their spiritual identity. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org