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While modern Abu Dhabi can be defined by a space-age skyline and gigantic engineering projects, glimpses of the emirate’s traditional old world can still be found and – if you have the right guide to initiate you into the often private lives of locals – experienced by visitors.
One classic Emirati tradition is the ezba, a place that long played an important role in the lives of Abu Dhabi’s nomadic Bedouin tribes.
Not to be confused with a farm, the ezba was a place where families once raised animals – sheep, goats and native desert animals such as camels – and passed on skills to younger generations.
While modernization has slowly erased the need for the ezba, with many Emiratis now firmly at home in the UAE’s towns and cities, in the last five to 10 years the country’s government has sought to preserve this relic of times gone by.
And now it’s become an authentic way to show expats and tourists the ways of times past and the spirit of the Emirati people’s survival before the discovery of oil.
“Nowadays, with all of modernity around us, the UAE government made sure not to let this tradition die,” says Abdulazeez Manea, one of the young generation of Emiratis offering visitors to Abu Dhabi an authentic taste of local culture at his own private ezba.
At just 30, he is pioneering a new movement of young Emiratis who want to treasure their traditional ways.
“It’s a way to connect to history and culture, so the ezba serves that connection,” he says.
Stories and symbolism
Advertising via Airbnb, Manea brings tourists and expats on day trips to his family ezba, out in the dunes around the region of Al-Wathba, about an hour’s drive from downtown Abu Dhabi.
They arrive in his quintessentially Emirati Nissan Patrol 4x4, which rolls up and down the dunes, giving his guests a taste of the lengths it takes to reach such a remote spot – one formerly reached only by camel or horseback.
Guests who come for the day typically join Manea on a walk through the sand as the sun is setting, hearing stories that form an oral history akin to the way tales were passed down from generation to generation by his ancestors.
They learn the symbolism of the majlis, or meeting place, and foods and drinks such as dates and coffee, which are synonymous with the ezba and Emirati hospitality.
Guests can also milk the animals, ride and interact with camels, and learn what it takes to care for the dromedary which was once the Bedouins’ only means of transport across the harsh desert terrain.
Before the discovery of oil in the UAE, family wealth was determined by animal ownership, Manea explains.
“Someone considered middle class would have 40 camels, while one was considered rich if they had 200-300. Wealth wasn’t currency but was measured in animals,” he says.
Visitors can learn the stories of Emirati life from traditional clothes – which they get a chance to try on – to customary greetings. Then there are tales of desert survival and the animals critical to that, and the journey these nomadic people went on to become one of the region’s most advanced and prosperous populations.
Barefoot in the sand
Visitors to the ezba may appreciate the natural beauty of the surroundings, interaction with the animals or the chance to learn skills like lighting fires. For many, it’s a rare chance to peer inside a sometimes mysterious Emirati world.
The desert silence amid the stables and fire pit stand in stark contrast to the hustle of Abu Dhabi’s busy city life.
“Everyone is craving this and we can see what a powerful impact it has not only for the visitors coming to experience this, but for the families,” says Manea.
“Children are not lost in their devices and people are genuinely bonding and spending quality time together. As the number of people owning ezbas has increased, so has that kind of social interaction.”
It’s not only tourists who are cherishing this revival. Emirati families view it as a way to stay connected to their identity.
“I see the farm neighborhoods very alive in the winter, especially with the children, playing with the animals, walking to the dunes next to the farms, learning about the plant life, insects and survival methods that we once depended on,” said Manea.
“In spite of all the amazing attractions we have, the most popular thing for Emirati families to do now is to come to the ezba, even for special occasions. The feeling of walking barefoot in the sand is something magical.”
Inside the enigma
The opening up of these private ezbas has come about following government investment in infrastructure, bringing electricity and water to once isolated spots.
Manea says he now feels like offering the experience to others is almost a duty.
“For me, being an Emirati comes with a burden, the burden of sharing an authentic story,” says Manea, who though he is a trained diplomat, is also an officially trained tour guide, connecting to visitors through Airbnb.
“There is the challenge of having a lack of Emiratis in the tourism sector interacting with tourists and nobody can tell my story better than me,” he said. “The ezba is almost the only remaining traditional experience.
“People told me they struggle to find these authentic cultural experiences usually but this was a way to touch the Emirati culture, the history, identity, ethos like hospitality. It showed that people want to learn more about my culture.”
Many members of Manea’s family now take part, allowing visitors, expatriates and tourists, to interact with the people who often remain an enigma to even those living within the UAE, where Emiratis are just 10-15% of the population.
“My nephews, nieces, siblings, elders, they all take part now,” he smiles. “I try to instil this into the younger members of the family showing there are always bridges to be built with people coming from around the world, showing them Emirati hospitality and culture.
“Our homes have always been open to everyone, so now with modern-style life things changed, but we can still send a message that we never closed our doors. No matter how much you meet your international friends in cafes and malls, it won’t touch them deeply the way it does meeting them in the ezba.”
Emirati Fatma al Mehairi, a member of the management team at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, says offering such authentic ways to engage with local culture is “priceless” and in “high demand” among visitors to the emirate and expatriates.
“It is interesting for expats living in the country as this gets them a better understanding of the heritage of the country they live in and makes people understand and acknowledge the Emirati unique routines and values,” she says.
Telling the Emirati story through the Emirati voice, is key, she says.
“It makes the experience richer to have locals being part of the tourism experience. We have so much to talk about and to offer. The UAE is a young country and we have developed so fast in such a short time but it’s also important to show others how we started and share with them that even with all these developments, we still respect our traditions.”
Teaching both young Emiratis and foreigners the ways of his people ensures these crucial elements of the tradition stay alive, says Manea.
“It shows the young that we can have the benefits of modern life without losing the old knowledge we would lose by moving away from these practices,” he adds.
“The more time I spend there, the more I learn about myself, my past, my family, my culture.
“I realized how important camels have been, and how much it took to take care of them. I need to preserve these precious gems. This indirect education must reach the next generation.”
Top photo credit: Abdulazeez Manea