x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Futuristic venue at Masdar marks the past

Traditions such as the yolla dance and khmer share the stage with solar panels as university shows students the evolving face of the UAE.

A group performs the harbiya, a traditional Emirati dance, yesterday at Masdar Institute.
A group performs the harbiya, a traditional Emirati dance, yesterday at Masdar Institute.

ABU DHABI // Amid waving UAE flags and the wafting smell of freshly fried foods, a handful of men danced with swords in honour of National Day.

Children compared festive jewellery and attire, henna artists adorned hands in a tent and falcons perched on their trainers' arms.

But rather than looking up into the sky as they sang during the traditional yolla dance, the men instead stared up into the 45-metre high wind tower soaring over Masdar Institute's solar panels and laboratories.

The newly inaugurated university held its first National Day celebration yesterday, and the festivities included camel rides, traditional foods and vendors peddling celebratory paraphernalia, all to mark the union of the country 39 years ago.

Wearing a scarf with a print of the UAE flag, Laura Stupin stood in the university's courtyard admiring the contrast between the campus' modern design and the old customs on display before her.

"It is so interesting to see traditional dancers in such a futuristic environment," said Ms Stupin, an American graduate student studying systems engineering who lives on the campus.

"It is so symbolic of the UAE's tendency to move forward with technology and yet hold on to old traditions."

Noura al Dhaheri, a graduate student from Al Ain, said she was approached by the school's faculty to help plan the day's events.

"It is nice to see that everyone is so curious and asking me to explain the dance rituals, to explain why women cover their faces and why older women dress different than younger women," she said as she ate khmer, a savoury pancake. "It is nice to see that the faculty and the students are taking in the culture and really showing an appreciation for it."

She plans to visit Green Mubazzarah, a mountainous area in Al Ain, on the actual holiday tomorrow, a family tradition.

About a third of the university's 170 students are Emirati, a fact that makes it important to showcase the country's history and heritage, said Monika Counts, Masdar's director of student affairs.

"We want to make this one of the biggest annual celebrations on campus, and wanted to do it in a way that new international students would get a good taste of how important the National Day is and what it encompasses," she said.

Ragini Kalapatapu, a graduate student from India who is studying mechanical engineering, came to the event from her villa in Khalifa City despite having a day off from classes. She bought a hijab, drank Arabic tea, rode on a camel and planned to get a henna tattoo before the day's end.

"I've seen the Grand Mosque, Heritage Village and the Emirates Palace hotel, but I thought it was important to get this official introduction," said Ms Kalapatapu, who moved to the country just three months ago.

For Andreas Henschel, a post-doctoral computer sciences student from Germany, the event was a rare glimpse into the life of Emiratis. "It is sad to say that at Masdar, and even in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, it is a very international environment and locals are a minority," he said, enjoying a cake frosted with the country's national colours as he watched the yolla dancers swing swords in a mock battle.

"It is not often that you get a chance to spend a lot of time with them or learn what their traditions are, like this dancing - it is not something you often see."