The more the merrier, writes Sheikha Alyazia bint Nahyan, who says our love of huge gatherings comes from our ancestors
The joy of multiplicity: how celebrating Eid is a communal experience
There is a time and a place to indulge personal inclinations and individuality. But at certain times, it is fitting for individuals to go with the sway of social customs and habits. Certain bonds depend on being collectively present as a group. One of those times is Eid Al Adha, which we are celebrating this week in the UAE.
It is inconceivable to experience Eid as an individual. To be true to the tradition of togetherness, groups and families must all put in the effort to celebrate as a whole. Enjoyment comes through associating with others and spending time with those we care about in our community.
It is impossible to think about spiritual occasions and holidays without such a gathering of people. This goes back to time immemorial. It is astonishing how even our ancient ancestors realised the need to strengthen communal bonds by joining together on special days. Just by walking through the galleries dedicated to ancient civilisations and religion at Louvre Abu Dhabi, it is clear that public, communal rituals were the main theme behind many of the artefacts. An Indian plaque that decorated a shrine 2,000 years ago shows a solar wheel surrounded by figures that represent Buddha and the community. An older set of two bronze vases from China was used in ancestral rituals to honour a particular family. Civilisations gave meaning to these pieces by the way they brought people together. Like an elaborate dining table seating a large gathering, the sole purpose was to fill all the chairs with likeminded companions.
The Hajj exhibition held in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque last year had one particularly special showpiece which illustrates this fact: a moving projection of the procession of the iconic kiswa, or cloth covering the Kaaba, all the way from Cairo to Mecca. A new cloth is prepared for the Kaaba every Eid Al Adha. In the projection, people are seeing clustering on balconies and on pavements, all anxious to follow its path and craning to catch a glimpse of the kiswa. Even though the footage is black and white, you sense the stir of a grand swell of devotional, positive energy among those gesturing crowds.
I was reminded of that feeling of watching something unique and precious while watching live footage (in colour) this week on Abu Dhabi TV on the first day of Eid. That is how everyone I know started their Eid, by watching the exceptional coverage of the leaders of the UAE gathering in Al Mushrif Palace.
On the television, you could see many lines of well-wishers making their way to the reception halls. There was genuine happiness and excitement in their interviews as they expressed seasonal wishes filled with hope and positivity. Gathering together, they clearly felt a collective excitement.
A high point of the morning was a special congratulatory message from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, to our troops in Yemen. As one soldier put it afterwards: "Our morale is sky-high”.
Both in an official and unofficial capacity, our leaders extend a sense of gratitude to us on every occasion. On these joyous occasions, every sector of society is included, which multiplies our reasons to be thankful.
It speaks to our enjoyment in these festivities, which comes from doing things as a community. Getting together is about enjoying the art of lounging. It does not take much to engage in these celebrations; just some spare time and plenty of small talk. Good wishes and easygoing chatter go much further than deep discussion. Nor are we alone in this.
Letters found as early as 2000BC in Egypt show expressions of nothing more than hearty wishes and an expression of remembrance. The complications surrounding the availability of scribes during that period and the difficulties of delivering missives meant posting letters or messages were reserved for only the most urgent matters. Nonetheless, when Hori, a scribe in the court of ancient Egypt, wrote to the pharaoh Ahmose I, the entirety of the letter was filled with nothing more than good wishes, with this message on papyrus: “In the favour of Amon-Re, king of gods. May they give you favour, love and cleverness, wherever you are.”
Societies in this region today are family-orientated. These societies are proactive in generating happiness all around. So this missive in turn is to give thanks to those who actively and outwardly engage in the holy celebrations. Whether you spend it with children gathered in a modern-day Eid tent with gifts waiting to be torn open or attend a family majlis, filled with the scent of incense mingling with such expressions of festive wishes, you will absorb the real meaning and traditions of Eid.
Alyazia bint Nahyan is an Emirati artist and founder of Anasy Documentary Productions