x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

National Day in the Northern Emirates: a time to give thanks

The country's founding is celebrated with no less fervour in the North of the UAE than it is in the larger cities.

Traditional sword dancers perform at a parade in honor of National Day on the RAK corniche.
Traditional sword dancers perform at a parade in honor of National Day on the RAK corniche.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // From the coast to the mountains, the Northern Emirates waited weeks for National Day. In the build-up to December 2, young men from the village of Galilah hiked to the top of the mountains surrounding their village and hung shining flags from the top of each brown peak. In the seaside villages below, flags and scarves are hung on every post and young men have spend weeks working through the mid day heat, their kandoras hitched over their knees, to dig holes for flag poles that celebrate national unity.

As the men worked, young women drove around handing out sweets wrapped in UAE colours to their friends in small incense burners and coffee cups. In villages across the northern emirates, the tradition of National Day has taken hold. Bigger celebrations are possible thanks to new mountains roads that have brought these communities together. In Waib al Hanna, Mohammed Ahmed, 15, and his teenage friends gather outside a grocery store, setting off firecrackers for National Day. This tiny mountain village was completely isolated until a highway connected it with the rest of the UAE a few years ago. Now, its houses are covered with UAE flags and boys chatter excitedly about upcoming celebrations.

"We'll be dancing all over," laughs Mohammed, miming the traditional yolla dance. "It's getting bigger and bigger every year." In the town of al Ghub, family members have decorated the houses of pilgrims returning from the Haj with UAE flags. Most residents here are involved in a five-day festival in Dibba Fujairah that features a poetry competition, traditional dancing and its own parade of beeping cars and messy confetti. But some have chosen quieter traditions.

"For National Day, we go with the guys to the mountains, set up a tent, make a grill and we'll sleep in the tent," says Ali Hassan, a 22-year-old policeman from Dibba Fujairah. National Day has become such an event for small communities that celebrations will often last days as people travel to the cities to participate in big parades on December 2 but perform their own competitions and celebrations in the days before and after. "National Day is growing and it's busy now because of TV and radio," Mr Hassan says. "Now more people know about our traditions. National Day really brings us together."

Ali al Shehhi, 20, a student at the Men's College from Sha'am, says: "They prepare for it weeks before, especially this year and last year. It's an important day for us, especially in rural places, because they kept their culture more than other places. In Dubai or Abu Dhabi maybe they celebrate in schools and then it's finished, but here we celebrate in special places in the town." Sha'am, for example, will hold its own parade with traditional dancing on Thursday. Above the town, a handmade 270-metre flag is draped across the mountain and even on National Day boys continue to tie satin sheets in the UAE's colours to any remaining post, fence or pole that remains unadorned.

"People in the village do the work," says Sultan al Shehhi, 18, another resident of Sha'am. "In the city, it's not like this. We love to do this because it's for my country. They give us everything and before we only had houses from stone." "In the villages we feel the difference from before and now," says another Sultan al Shehhi, 27, a business man from Sha'am. "In the city there are a few differences but in the villages we see a very big difference in the roads, in the schools, in the houses even from 10 years before." Today, the Northern Emirates are covered in thousands of flags and lights thanks to the new tradition of villagers pooling their money and manpower for National Day decorations.

The villagers of Kebdah, on the north coast of RAK, invested Dh10,000 for a huge flag that leads from the highway into their town. "Now there's more relations between each emirate," says Ahmed al Shehhi, 25, a policeman in Abu Dhabi. "We love each other more than before and want to show this." He is spending the day with his family, six brothers and two sisters, before they join other families from the village and head to RAK in a convoy of their decorated vehicles. His father Sulaiman al Shehhi now in his mid-fifties, a man with a silver beard and a dimple in his right cheek, worked as a goatherd in the mountains before he joined the army after the founding of the UAE. "God help our Highness to keep it like this," he says.

While the heart of National Day may be found in the small villages across the northern emirates, there is no better place to witness its spirit than the city. At the stroke of midnight on the nation's 38th birthday, the pavements of Ras al Khaimah city were already stained with red, white, green and black paint. Cars clogged the roads of the old town as families rushed to get their 4x4s decked out in national regalia. This year, to the delight of the town's artists, painting is the fashion. "Before they did cars in RAK with stickers but then I did a few with paint and now everybody wants painting because it's less expensive," says Sayud Qayum, 31, a grey-eyed painter from Swat who has worked since the age of 11 and lived in RAK for 12 years.

He squints at a slip of paper with instructions of what to write and where: "Bu Khalid" is to adorn the bonnet, "Emirati and Proud" on the rear windscreen and poetry on the sides. He dips his brush in white paint and begins to scrawl in graceful calligraphy on the car doors, "admire how this country is built and give thanks to our leaders". "We start with the idea of the flag and then it just comes," says Mr Qayum. "Last year we did about 30 cars total. Today I've already done 20." The art studios each expect to earn about Dh16,000 this week, the equivalent to two months' income.

"I worked until four in the morning," said Fazal Rabi, 40, an artist from Pakistan who has worked here 20 years. "For three or four days we haven't slept. I've been working since 8am." His face and wiry white hair is covered in glitter and despite his exhaustion, he is in good spirits. "UAE is in my heart," he smiles. For expatriates like Mr Rabi, the UAE is a second home and National Day is a celebration they share. "We were born here in the UAE and we celebrate all the things they do and we like it here. It becomes a part of us," says Yasser Rassol, 26, a businessman who has come with his sister to get his car painted. "When it's their independence day, that means it's our independence day. My father was basically a poor man from Pakistan, a villager. He was in search of a living and he first landed here in 1966.

"We are Pakistani but the place we grew up, the alleys, the childhood friends, the culture, the language, the people, we cannot forget. It's a part of our life. We say al Hamdullilah, thank God we had a UAE National Day or we would not be here." People came by the thousands to share National Day together on the RAK Corniche. After weeks of preparations, the main events began at 4pm, when the first confetti hit the pavement after a performance of the national anthem by the tartan-clad police band. A short parade of all ages of residents and citizens from schools, government departments, sport clubs and expatriate associations was followed by the UAE's greatest and perhaps newest national tradition: the impromptu parade of hundreds of cars draped in the national flag, painted by professional calligraphy artists, covered in stickers of hearts and stars and photos of the sheikhs of each emirate.

As the sun set, the city began to glow with the garlands of white, red and green lights strung from buildings and lamp posts. When the fire works began at 6.30pm, cars blared their horns below in appreciate. "National Day, it means my heart," says Zaina Khamis, 30, a mother from RAK who has decorated her abaya with photos and stickers of the sheikhs. "This is my father, my mother, my land, my sister, my life."