After the Al Dhafra Festival winds down for the day, the long tradition of coffee and conversation continues. Here's why the majlis is still important in the 21st century.
Space and time: why the majlis is still important
As the dusk draws in over the gathering deep in the desert, the waft of woodsmoke heralds the time for the men to gather at the majlis, sip cups of Arabic coffee and discuss the day's events. That much has remained the same for centuries. But Ali Salim al Kaabi is convinced that the role of the majlis is more important now than probably any previous time in the UAE's history, which is why he has spared no effort in setting up one of the finest tents on top of a prominent hill at this year's Al Dhafra camel festival.
Al Kaabi often sat in Sheikh Zayed's majlis, and now that he is a government minister with a large family of his own, he wants his children to have the same kind of introduction that he had to what makes the UAE unique. "The thing is, the way of living now is very fast," he says. "Young people are going to school until the afternoon. Their mother is busy; their father is also busy. "If you don't have time like this in the majlis so the children can learn from us, we'll have a generation that hasn't kept the same culture and the same traditions. So of course the majlis is very important to show young people how to live."
The concept of the majlis might not have changed since before oil was discovered in the region but the execution of it certainly has. Al Kaabi's majlis tent might still be constructed from wool and embroidered fabric in the traditional style, but instead of a modest, three-sided tent set amid the dunes, it is a large structure with three separate meeting areas and windbreaks, set in a crescent shape facing away from the prevailing winds.
Just behind is a bank of portable ablution and kitchen trailers where a generator chugs into life, bringing fluorescent light and satellite coverage of a football match to a widescreen television off to one side. The road leading through the sand up a hill to the majlis is unpaved but two-wheel-drive-friendly. It is lined with a combination of floodlights and strings of lights in the UAE colours. Each light pole is topped with a UAE flag.
As dusk passes into night, it's clear that thousands of people are camping on the plains just south of Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi's western district. Many of them live most of the year in villas with all the modern comforts, but for this 10-day festival - the largest and most important of its kind in the region - their camels are here, and so the people are too. Once the dusk prayer is completed and night has fully descended on the plains, family, friends, colleagues and a few strangers will converge on majlises such as al Kaabi's. Besides his farm, al Kaabi is the director of the Office of the Minister of Presidential Affairs and the chairman of the board of trustees at the Family Development Foundation.
Those with the luxury of deep pockets have created tents bestrewn with lights, making them visible from far away. Others, who have built far more modest structures, sit around in small tents lit by ghaf wood fires. It is a scene that would be familiar to a Bedouin from 100 years ago. Al Kaabi's son, Mohammed al Kaabi, says it is important that if such an ancestor were to arrive at their substantial majlis, he would at least find the tradition of hospitality familiar.
"It's very important to take care of our guests, and we have to take care about our tradition," Mohammed says. "Even our grandfathers and Sheikh Zayed had the same habit. It's almost all Arab countries, all desert countries. Always if they have a guest, that guest has special value. This is the habit of the desert. "You can stay for three days. You can eat and drink and nobody will ask anything for three days. You have a good welcome.
"Before, our tradition was that they came before you. If you didn't have enough room, you stayed outside. After three days, you ask him what he can offer." Another member of the extended family, Bilal al Kaabi, says there is a similar majlis at the family's farm in Abu Dhabi's eastern region. "If you have the chance," he says. "visit us in the farm in Al Ain. We also have this tent there. It's farm and desert and camels all together. We have a villa but you'll find this tent outside."
With the festival's focus on camels - not to mention the substantial prize money and a fleet of more than 100 four-wheel-drives lined up ready to go to the winners - it is no surprise that dromedary topics are frequently raised in the majlis. "The camels are of special value for us," Bilal says. "There will always be talking and drinking coffee. Talking about the festival and poetry. Almost all the Arab people love the desert. They have time to say poetry.
"In the majlis sometimes there are discussions about the sale of camels. They'll discuss the price: sometimes a camel is Dh1 million, Dh2m or Dh3m. There are always people here. They will have lunch, dinner and something like this." The time right after dusk is one of the busiest. Every few minutes, the headlights of a four-wheel-drive sweep around the rough car park and someone else comes over to where Ali Salem al Kaabi sits amid a U-shaped set of benches, each with a table of fresh fruit in front of it.
Warm greetings are exchanged and invitations are made - a neighbour who has had a good day at the competition invites the family to visit his similarly lavish majlis. There is time to talk and, equally important, listen. That is the element of the majlis that al Kaabi is determined should remain, even if his 2010 edition is rather more luxurious than anything his distant ancestors could have envisaged.
"It's one of our traditions, hospitality to people. All the time we're busy with our work, whether it's government work or our own business," he says. "So this is the time we see each other. Different tribes, different people will meet here. We spend the evening talking. We enjoy talking and drinking Arabic coffee. "There are people from all over the GCC. People from Qatar, Saudi and Oman. Everybody is waiting for this event for the whole year. It's an especially good time. There's good weather and people like to sit around the fire because it's cold. They enjoy the night, sitting around with each other.
"We can learn a lot from Sheikh Zayed - he was, as you know, the founder of this country. What we learnt from him is that we have to have good relations with other nations and also to have the good things from them, like technology or whatever. But we should keep our traditions because other nations will only respect us if we have our own traditions. Without our traditions, we're without respect. "We have kept our traditions. Everybody in the world, from every nation, has their own traditions and we need to keep ours."
That pragmatic mix of exogenous and indigenous influences explains not only the fleet of Range Rovers and other high-end four-wheel-drives parked just beyond, but also the way the latest generation of Emiratis is being shown how life ought to be. "Of course the majlis is important," al Kaabi says. "Now I have my children with me and we have children from my neighbours. They know how to listen to old people. At the same time, the children are seeing me sitting with you now. I'm an Arab and you're another nationality. This is one way to teach children.
"For example, if they see me cross to the road to avoid you, they'll think: 'My father goes away from these people.' It's a very good way to teach them. "I was Sheikh Zayed's director of the Office of the President for eight to 10 years. His majlis was daily. After he'd tour around the projects and what he wanted to see - he had a programme every day - he'd come back to the palace and sit in the majlis from 11am until lunchtime, listening to people and talking to people. Then he'd come back at 8pm and be in the majlis until dinner time. You'd get poetry, traditional culture - you'd get everything in his majlis.
"Most of the people learnt a lot from Sheikh Zayed. He'd have things he wanted to teach to others but he'd discuss things with you. He knew that you knew about the topic but he wanted to send a message to others sitting nearby how this should be. "So for us, the majlis is very important, especially for this kind of event, where people come from all over the country. Also you have new friendships. I think majlises are very important for everyone."
Al Kaabi has 100 camels at the competition and he knows that one young female took top prize in similar competition in Qatar. Soon we're discussing her prospects and how government work will take him to Abu Dhabi tomorrow. He vows to be back in time for the announcement of the winner. He explains how a photographer and I should stay and eat with the others before going back to the capital. Nearby are two of his sons and a host of other men, from the very young to those whose beards are thick with grey. I can't help thinking that al Kaabi has succeeded: if a Bedouin ancestor were transplanted from 1910, he would find something very familiar about this majlis.