This weekend marks the closing days of this year’s historic Qasr Al Hosn Festival. The Weekend team recommend five highlights that you really must catch before it’s all over.
Five things to see at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival before it closes this weekend
1 See the exhibition
Before entering the festival, take a little time to first visit the Qasr Al Hosn exhibition centre.
This is the tall modern building with a distinctive wicker exterior next to the fort and reached by turning left on Hamdan Street or right on Electra.
The exhibition includes one of the old, spiked doors from the palace, a cannon and many photographs from the turn of the 20th century.
Make sure to watch the mesmerising documentary film of some of the city’s oldest inhabitants talking about their memories of Qasr Al Hosn and what life was like before the discovery of oil.
And don’t miss the installation created by the Lest We Forget project, which was originally started at Zayed University to encourage students to share family photographs.
Those images have now been collected into a book, copies of which are available for viewing. The room also includes furniture from the 1970s and 1980s, with more photographs hidden in the drawers to discover.
Best of all, the team has recreated three studio backdrops from some of the old photographs. Visitors can stand in front of one and have their photograph taken on a Polaroid camera as a souvenir of the day.
2 Take the Qasr Al Hosn tour
The highlight of any visit is the tour of Qasr Al Hosn, which is open to the public for the first time in several years.
Guides will escort you first through the fort’s main gate, then into the courtyard of what was once the original building, then through to the larger structure, which is about 60 years old.
It’s a chance to look at the restoration being carried out, with mortar stripped back to expose some of the coral stones used for construction in the 1940s.
Look out also for the circular tower on the right of the main gate, which may be the original 18th-century burj. The wall that this tower helps form was once the main exterior fortification and was also used as an outdoor majlis by the Ruler. A photograph of Sheikh Zayed the First sitting there can be seen in several locations around the festival.
Tours are in English and Arabic, but spaces are limited. So if you want to join one, our tip is to first head straight to the information booth next to the fort as soon as you enter the festival and sign up.
3 Try out your green fingers
Here’s a chance to take something away and give something back. The Gardening Club offers visitors an opportunity to learn something about the native plants of the region.
Anyone stopping by can also choose seeds from one of three plants: the arta shrub, Thafra’s shrub and the ghaf tree.
Arta has edible fruit, while Thafra’s shrub is said to have been used to heal warriors during the Trojan War. The ghaf is the national tree, and citizens are encouraged to plant their own.
One of the volunteers will plant your seed in a mix of sand and potting soil and give it a refreshing drink before popping it in a plastic bag to prevent spillage.
With luck, in a few months you should have a permanent memory of the Qasr Al Hosn growing in your garden.
The Gardening Club can be found in the Oasis section of the festival, near the indigenous garden.
4 Sip on traditional coffee
Arabic coffee is more than tradition – it’s a lifestyle.
Even if there was no food to serve, a guest could be confident that there would at least be some coffee.
“Even if there was a feud between tribes, when they met, they would sit and serve each other Arabic coffee, as hospitality always comes first in Arab tradition,” says Reem Al Mansoori, the public engagement officer at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, which designed and organised the immaculate Gahwa pavilion as part of the festival.
“We wanted to bring out the traditional coffee out of homes and present it in a contemporary cafe setting, where a guest would enjoy more than a sip of coffee, they would enjoy the whole cultural experience of drinking Emirati coffee,” says the 28-year-old Emirati.
It’s set up inside the Cultural Foundation – which was built in 1981 to showcase Islamic cultural heritage and as a centre of art and learning – and given a contemporary, almost luxurious makeover. Visitors get to smell and taste the different types of coffee blends as they enter a modern tent against a backdrop of traditional rababa music along with different types of dates and traditional desserts served on the side. Some of the desserts include halwa, which is a jelly-based sugar confection infused with rose water and spices, batheetha (a date-paste crumble with seasoned flour and Arabic oils) and date truffles.
“There are places that serve Arabic coffee, but they don’t put much effort into the presentation. We wanted to give you the option of a takeaway cup and to leave with a story.”
The cups at Gahwa are bigger than those found in typical homes, as the size chosen was based on a fact dug up on how Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, preferred these bigger measures.
“I thought I knew about our coffee, until I started researching and found out so many layers and stories and traditions associated with it,” says Al Mansoori. “It is a never-ending story.”
Al Mansoori set up the menu, after researching and asking her grandmother and grandmothers of her friends, to get as much detail and information as possible.
“Before, different emirates had different blends of coffee; today, each Emirati household has its own mix of Emirati coffee,” she says. For instance, in the past, Emiratis in the Al Ain liked their coffee black. Some parts of the northern emirates like it lighter – shaqra, which translates to blond.
Each costing Dh10, the pavilion serves “classic” Emirati gahwa, which has cardamom in it; aromatic, which also includes saffron; and a “special” option that features all three plus rose water. Visitors also have the option to drink traditional Emirati coffee with ginger or cinnamon, and for those who don’t like coffee, there’s the option of haleeb, which is milk with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron.
Al Mansoori is not a coffee drinker, but after working on Gahwa, she has a new appreciation for the importance of the drink, as a cultural and Islamic tradition.
“I found out it was based in Sunnah, as Prophet Mohammed used to do, that he would have odd numbers of dates, where one would eat three dates, or five, or seven,” she says.
From how to hold the dallah (the coffee pot) to how much to serve (a little bit less than half of a cup), and when to keep serving and when to stop, all these rituals are explained to visitors.
Sabaih Ali Al Kaabi, the resident coffee expert, oversees brewing and serving at Gahwa with a fastidiousness he learnt at his father’s side in the Al Ain desert.
“I had to mature into coffee-making,” says Al Kaabi, 39. “I can’t really put a time on when I mastered it, because I grew up with simple equipment and the coffee equipment changed and grew up with me. Now you have machines where you put a timer on and it roasts 10 kilograms of beans.”
Simple instruments make the best brews. Gahwa’s beans are roasted in a pan over hot coals, pounded to a medium coarseness (“an automatic grinder makes it too soft,” says Al Kaabi) and simmered in boiling water for an average of eight minutes. Coffee is removed to settle sediment before it is transferred to a second pot for serving.
Wood from the sumr tree, sun-dried for more than a year, gives the best coals.
Al Kaabi adds nothing to his coffee except cardamom, which enhances its natural flavour without changing its reddish hue.
Al Kaabi, who has brewed coffee twice a day since the age of 6, says that the secret to any coffee is the roast.
“Roasting the coffee determines its quality. Even the best kind of coffee is no good if it’s under- or over-roasted.”
Serving is done with a steady hand. Coffee is poured with the left hand into small cups served with the right.
“Always serve the coffee when it’s hot,” says Al Kaabi. “Even if it’s warm, it’s shameful. The guests might be offended.”
Guests should receive the cup with the right hand, never set it down, and shake it side to side when finished, or it will be refilled.
The number of cups drunk carries significance expressed in the saying “al dayf, al kayf, al saif” (the guest, the well-being and the sword).
The first cup is for hospitality, the second for the mind and soul, the third for a bond so strong that its drinker would follow the host into battle.
“It is a complete Emirati experience, not just a drink, when you come to Gahwa,” Al Mansoori says.
5 Investigate the workshops
Children and adults can unfurl their imaginations at cultural workshops inside the Cultural Foundation hall.
At the first station, Traditional Clothing and Accessories, children can dress like an Emirati bride or groom and pose for a photograph to carry home, mix oils and bukhoor perfumes to create a signature scent or make their own burqa.
At the traditional crafts section, older children can try their hand at sadu weaving on small looms, practise the art of khoos (palm-frond weaving) or sit at a “kajuja” to braid telli, Emirati embroidery, with metallic thread.
Children ready to get their hands dirty can pick up a stick of charcoal and decorate a cardboard hobby horse, or craft a small vessel of clay from the Ras Al Khaimah mountains near Julfar, a medieval trading port in the emirate.
Children can also work with a volunteer to sew their own cloth doll and style its hair, dress (polka dots being the most popular choice) and burqa.
With reporting from James Langton, Rym Ghazal and Anna Zacharias.
• The Qasr Al Hosn Festival runs until tomorrow, from 4pm to 11pm. www.qasralhosnfestival.ae
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