Fifty years ago, this was not a hypothetical question but a challenge for seven men as they gathered at a desert crossroads. Their answer would go on to embody a sense of unity and possibility and lead to the formation of the United Arab Emirates.
Since its founding in 1971, the UAE has transformed rapidly and profoundly. The prosperous, urbanized nation welcomes residents from other parts of the world, who now make up nearly ninety percent of the population. Women play a prominent role in private as well as every aspect of public life. Yet the era before oil is still in living memory; the impact of the environment persists as a determinate of the way of life. Traditional knowledge can be a source of solutions to the world’s pressing problems. In the UAE, investigations of memory, from both the distant and recent past, underlie many creative and groundbreaking projects, from poetry to architecture, music to green technologies.
At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, United Arab Emirates: Living Landscape | Living Memory explored cultural traditions that emerge from Emirati experiences of migration and survival in close connection with the natural environment. But the UAE is also forward-looking, and the program highlighted visions for a diverse, sustainable future.
Our program took the form of a majlis—an Emirati tradition of gathering and conversation inscribed on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. There, we explored three areas of human experience: place, creativity, and belonging. Together, we joined artisan and culinary demonstrations, poetry and spoken-word sessions, musical performances, discussions and storytelling, films, workshops, and more. Special activities for children and families aimed to spark curiosity, creativity, and joy.