(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

National Day — اليوم الوطني

— New video at the bottom —

“’Eid sa’iid,” we wish each other — happy holiday. It’s not Islamic New Year yet. It’s not Hanukkah (although it is). It’s not Christmas — even if the buildings all draped and merry in glittering neon suggest otherwise from outside every window.

A window.

On December 2nd, the Emirates come alive — as they tend to do at wintertime — for National Day. This year marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the unification of the UAE’s seven emirates, a historical occasion commemorated by the only tradition befitting its supremacy in the lifespan of the young country: shooting silly string in strangers’ faces.

It’s chaos. Car owners en masse relieve their vehicles of their mufflers, burning rubber and backfiring (not supposed to sound dirty) on the busiest street in the city. The Corniche, which runs from the Port all the way through Abu Dhabi, past the beaches and up to Emirates Palace Hotel, is a standstill: thousands rev engines and blare music in cars painted with red, green and black, arrayed with faces of the Sheikhs, and overflowing with garlands and streamers. Exhaust pipes howl under pressure, letting out bursts that from the distance sound like automatic gunfire, and from up close, feel like it. Friends ride in pickup trucks or huge flatbeds, jumping and shaking them until it seems like they just might tip over. Others dance in circles in the street. Fireworks are exploding all the time. And everyone is shooting everyone in the face.

Roaming salesman sell cans of colored silly string for a buck twenty-five on the street, and passengers in or hanging out of or on top of cars fire back with a vengeance. Also to beware: the guy riding shotgun probably has a shotgun-style supersoaker and a devil-may-care attitude. Some shoot string, others shoot soapy water — many shoot a kind of bathtub foam that fills the air and sticks to your clothes. It’s every man, woman and child for his or herself.

And that’s the amazing thing — men and women have agreed to let down the barriers between them — if only for this one night, and if only to fight each other with aerosol cans full of gooey string. But is that far different from gender relations in any other country? All guys and girls ever want in their heart of hearts is to spray foam in each other’s faces and giggle (also not supposed to sound dirty — not an easy holiday to describe with a straight face, but why have a straight face?). And the guys and girls here do so with an enthusiasm meant more for a 39-year old’s bachelor party than a 39th anniversary.

The super soakers wash away class distinction, too, leaving those that would go home to wash in palaces just as vulnerable as their every spray can-wielding foe. Mazerati drivers with open windows suffer sneak attacks, clever infantry shoot soapy jets through sunroofs — the more you have, the more you can get covered in string and spume.

Yet in this chaos, there is a code — a wild west gunslinger’s rulebook. I stand rattling my can streetside, armed only with the power to intimidate and get foamed in the face. Cars drive by; a Pakistani man sticks his head out of the window, holding his can. He turns his hand over and over: empty?. I’m empty.

Shoot you next year.

See it all happen here:

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