x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

This day was never more relevant

National Day has renewed meaning for an Emirati who has returned after many years abroad.

A s an Emirati who is only a few years younger than this country, I have a long experience of celebrating National Day, but seldom have I felt so enthusiastic as I did this time.

In the 1980s, when I was a child, the occasion was nothing more than a school holiday for me for various reasons. It wasn’t an event that was celebrated in such a grand way, with decorations of streets and buildings and with so many programmes. It wasn’t like the celebrations of Eid Al Fitr signifying the end of Ramadan and all the memories of the holy month, or Eid Al Adha, commemorating the Haj season. Nor was it an occasion to receive gifts and clothes, or a time for families to come together.

That was then. It’s no longer the same for me. In my job as a rehabilitation psychiatrist, I was responsible this time for overseeing the celebrations that are put together for patients at our day care centre. As I did so, I tended to objectively look at the preparations for the occasion.

As we scrimped and saved from our recreation budget to buy decorations, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated with the pricey and somewhat cheesy decoration items, which cannot be recycled or reused as we do with so many other items during other celebrations. I began to ask questions to myself: do we really need to buy particular decorations to celebrate a particular year? Couldn’t we use those that we used last year?

But then I realised that this is not just any other occasion. All of us know how this great country came into being. In 1971 and after long negotiations, Sheikh Zayed was able to convince the ruling family of Dubai about his vision of a united Middle East. He did so with other rulers in the region, which resulted in the birth of this country. Apart from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, four other emirates – Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah – initially agreed to join the union, which was called the United Arab Emirates. Ras Al Khaimah joined a few months later. A constitution came into effect on December 2, 1971.

In school, we used to eagerly read about how the dream of Arab unity was pursued so intensely on the back of a strong belief of our leaders in the collective strength of the Arab people. This dream was not only fulfilled in the creation of the UAE, but it culminated in the birth of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It’s hard for me to describe how much this idealism helped shape my world view as a young boy.

As an adult, on the other hand, I was suffering from preparation fatigue. Ahead of the National Day, while relaxing at a coffee shop with my colleagues, we were talking about how exhausting the month had been, when one of them asked me if I was going to attend Al Maseerah (the National Day procession).

I had no idea what they meant, and they all looked at me with disbelief. They explained to me that the procession was an annual feature in which people would drive back and forth on the Corniche to celebrate National Day by blowing horns, waving flags and firing water pistols. Having spent most of my adulthood overseas, I sometimes feel silly when I realise how out of touch I am with our traditions. This amuses my colleagues to no end.

My colleagues are all expatriates – Somalis, Sudanese, a Lebanese and a half-Palestinian-half-Egyptian. As I looked at them and felt their enthusiasm about the forthcoming celebration, I wondered how easily they choose to celebrate the UAE’s National Day as if it were an event of their own.

Their earnestness especially surprised me because some other expatriate friends told me in the past that they viewed the UAE as their temporary home. That sentiment no longer sounded true to me as my colleagues began to talk about how much fun they expected to have during the procession and why they were looking forward to it.

As they continued to talk, I felt oddly connected to this day and all my fatigue and frustration began to wane. I suddenly understood why it was so important and what it really meant to some of the people who have adopted our country as their own. In the end, National Day is the reminder of a time when seven emirates decided that they would follow one man’s vision of a united Arab nation.

I realise how foolish it is for someone not to embrace such an ideal, especially in these troubled times.

Faisal Al Nowais is an Emirati psychiatrist