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From late June through early July, part of Washington, DC’s National Mall was transformed into a living museum showcasing crafts, music, and historical artifacts from the United Arab Emirates for the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival. The UAE program exhibition – “Living Landscape, Living Memory” – was co-curated by Michele Bambling, curator, founder, and former creative director at Lest We Forget, and Rebecca Fenton, curator, art historian, and former fellow and researcher at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The exhibition featured over a hundred participants from or based in the UAE and elsewhere who shared with visitors snippets of historical and contemporary Emirati cultural practices, with a special emphasis on how these have developed over time in close connection with the environment. The festival’s two-week run was filled with musical performances of traditional pearl-diving songs, spoken word and poetry sessions, calligraphy installations, cooking demonstrations, interactive palm tree-painting workshops, and dozens more demonstrations and installations that brought the country’s rich cultural history to Washington.
While the festival captured some of the UAE’s most prominent historical cultural practices, like qahwa (coffee) making and fragrance workshops, it also introduced visitors to ways that contemporary Emirati and UAE-based cultural practitioners are engaging with and reviving traditions. For instance, a “Digital Majlis” installation walked visitors through the history of the Emirati majlis – a traditional, cushioned seating area for meeting guests – while inviting them to imagine what the majlis of the future could look like. The installation, created by architecture and design professors at Emirati universities, used augmented reality tools to take visitors on a virtual tour of the future majlis. Another booth featured different styles of female adornment in the UAE, using a 3D printer to render traditional necklaces. Initiatives like Lest We Forget also participated in the festival, showcasing their contributions to collecting and preserving the UAE’s heritage with contemporary techniques.
AGSIW spoke with Sana’a Amro, a participant in the Folklife Festival’s virtual Story Circle and founder of the cultural enterprise The Knot, about her experience in cultural education and with the founding of a cultural startup in the UAE. Now launching two more business initiatives under The Knot’s umbrella, Sana’a shared her approach to teaching Emirati culture to both foreign visitors and local residents, the gaps in the cultural market that The Knot hopes to fill, and the role of the younger generation in gathering stories and preserving memory in the UAE.
AGSIW: What was the inspiration behind The Knot?
Sanaa: I first got to understand culture from an educational point of view through my experience in higher education. My role has always been in the student affairs offices within universities, and in each university, it’s always fascinating to see how the administration is engaging its students within the institution and within the host country. Then, I realized that culture is usually only introduced when there is an international audience, so it was never introduced to Emiratis or locals because everyone is under the assumption that because you’re born and raised in one country or you hold a certain nationality, you don’t need to know much about it.
But, on the contrary, I think that working in these environments made me realize that even Emiratis get fascinated with their own culture. You find people from the capital city who don’t necessarily know a lot about the Northern Emirates and vice versa. These experiences made me wonder about what culture is, how culture can be transferred, how much of my own culture I would like to preserve, and how much of it is okay for us to change with time. And then, if I were to pass on any of this culture to younger generations, what would this process look like? Giving a lecture is no longer the way to transfer knowledge. Having someone give you a class on culture no longer works – it has to take different shapes.
AGSIW: What was the cultural learning style that you hoped to use in The Knot?
Sanaa: Personally, I am someone who enjoys experiences, enjoys people, and enjoys having fun. I like to receive my knowledge through interactive experiences. I would rather have conversations with people and understand them better that way than read a book about a certain culture. And I know that sometimes having a conversation with just one person is not enough to understand a whole culture, but it’s at least the window or the door to many more conversations. How I would describe it is: It’s the first thread of many more to come, whether that thread is the food or religion or different trends or what’s happening in their community itself. This is why I started my journey with The Knot.
AGSIW: What inspired the name “The Knot”?
Sanaa: When it came to creating The Knot, I always found that culture can be so complex so it’s like a knot in that way, but then, if you take one thread at a time, you can see the beauty of everything. For instance, you can’t just say that food or clothes or language are a culture. You put everything together with experiences and with all the other elements and then you have a culture. It’s also, in another sense, about knotting a thread. I see The Knot as tying a knot between people coming from different walks of life and different cultures. This could be as simple as two Emiratis coming together from different walks of life creating their own cultural knot made of their own different experiences.
AGSIW: Who makes up The Knot team?
Sanaa: To me, what makes The Knot amazing is that it was always a community effort. Yes, I knew what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to get there. I needed other creative people to help me out. So, when I started The Knot, I started telling my friends about it. I wanted to promote local tourism, but I didn’t have the full story of my own country, and I wanted people who could share an experience and make it more interactive and fun. I wanted more Emirati representation, whether designs done by an Emirati designer or photography done by youth. The majority of our team has always been university students. I would reach out to them, involve them in the project, tell them what I imagine, and then show them where their involvement has gone.
AGSIW: Would you tell us more about the other components of The Knot?
Sanaa: There are two more actually: Knotters and The Knot Store. One of the problems I realized as a business owner or small to medium enterprise founder is that company founders struggle with not having enough capital to run marketing and run operations. So, we created a student employment app called “Knotters” that connects university students with small and medium enterprise owners. SME owners will post, on a daily basis, gigs that they want filled and name their price. Then, students will log into the app and see this sea of opportunities, where they can make their own income. I believe that Knotters will also solve another economic problem that currently exists, which is that university students don’t have enough income and don’t have any real experience by the time they graduate from university. I’m very proud of the project, and I can’t wait for it to shape up. We’re currently in the final stages of app development, then we’ll be testing the app in August, and hopefully we’ll be able to launch it officially by September.
The other component is The Knot Store. I established The Knot Store as a hub or pop-up shop where I curate gifts that fit our culture, such as coffee cups, coloring sets, and tote bags, made by designers, graphic designers, and gift makers in the UAE. For example, our coloring set is a box with bilingual coloring cards that teach people about the beautiful memories of Emiratis. To design this, we reached out to 20 friends from The Knot community, and we told them, “Listen, we are creating a box of different coloring pages, and we want stories. So, what kinds of beautiful memories have you had under the rain? What kinds of memories have you had with your grandma or sisters or at school?” Once we collected the 20 stories, we translated them into English, and we made sure to use a few Emirati words and explain them, so the cards are both educational and enjoyable.
AGSIW: What are some of the experiences or projects that The Knot has curated?
Sanaa: One experience we have is called “Bait Arab,” or home of Arabs. We wanted to promote Emirati houses. For “Bait Arab,” I identified a woman in her late 50s, Umm Youssef, who has a private collection of historical artifacts and household objects that she collected with her husband for 50 years. Her disadvantages were technology and translation and that she didn’t know how to reach out to the market. So, I created a story for her, made videos about her and her collection, then I created programs around that. For example, we ask visitors to bring something special with them to talk about it, and we make it more of a storytelling experience. That’s one project I really like, and we’ve sustained it for three years now.
Recently, we curated for a group of high school students from THINK Global School. Their request to The Knot, as part of their weeklong cultural program called “weXplore,” was to see as much of the UAE as possible in four to five days. We curated a whole experience for them where we took them to the mountains to meet beekeepers, then to private museum collections in Fujairah, then kayaking in Hatta, and then to museums in Dubai. When we stopped at the end of the day, we made a big circle and talked about culture. My philosophy is that there is no such thing as a taboo question; if you don’t ask, you will always assume. And if you always assume, you will always hate. So, you might as well ask and allow me the opportunity to explain. We also remind our visitors that this is only one person’s narrative, and that there are others out there. This is important because if they see something that contradicts something they learned on our trips, they remember that what they had learned was only one person’s perspective.
AGSIW: You mentioned the role of the younger generation in The Knot. What about the role of the younger generation more broadly in preserving, promoting, and sharing cultural heritage in the UAE?
Sanaa: I think we all come through this stage in our life where we feel like we want to explore and learn about the world – we are more curious about other cultures than our own. When it comes to our own culture later, we start to want to understand it, and then we also want to promote it and talk about it. How the young do it is, I think, through the trips and traveling when they meet other friends and represent themselves on those trips. But honestly, the one thing I noticed that is really popular is festivals, like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I like their style – I absolutely love it. It’s familial, you can bring anyone. There are workshops; there are conversations; there is music – and music can do wonders. You now also find young people sharing their culture through art, which is amazing.
AGSIW: You also collaborated with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival recently. Can you tell us more about that event?
Sanaa: I was supposed to be part of the festival before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the festival got postponed the first time. Then, when they came up with the virtual series, and it was closer to Ramadan, the idea was for me to introduce Ramadan. I wanted to introduce Ramadan from my narrative, where it’s about all the beautiful little things instead of looking at Ramadan through a religious lens or as something global. When I introduced Ramadan, I didn’t think of it as me representing all Muslims or representing all Emiratis. I wanted to introduce my audience to intangible things or tangible little items that they might not have seen because they’re not part of that culture. So, I shared small token things like small prayer beads or the Quran or little rituals.
I think it was the first time I realized the importance of how you can organize your thoughts and key messages to introduce them to international audiences. I’m not going to say I did a good job in that one, but I felt the weight of that responsibility, because then, at that moment you ask yourself: “Do I want to share my own story? Will the audience understand it? Or do I want to represent a larger number of people? How would they feel about that?”
AGSIW: When you first launched The Knot, what were your ambitions in the long run?
Sanaa: I have a vision board that I look at every day. What I want is The Knot to be a space and platform to promote the UAE and Abu Dhabi specifically. I think that there’s a lot that Abu Dhabi can offer, and people wouldn’t realize the beauty of it until they come here or meet someone from here. I also imagine The Knot to be a platform that will gather people from different walks of life in the Emirati community who can then promote that to guests of the UAE. I want to share this platform with other people, like gift makers, artists, and musicians, and I want it to be an online hub that people can go to when they have no idea what to do during the week, or they’re visiting, or they want to buy an art piece or a small token or gift. I want it to be their go-to place.
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