UAE’s birth story at Etihad Museum

December 2 is commemorated as UAE national day because of the historic unification that happened on this day in 1971. Six rulers of six emirates met to form the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate Ras al Khaimah joined the federation only on February 11, 1972. But what most of us don’t know is that the seeds of this momentous unification was laid on February 18, 1968, in Al Sedaira followed by a meeting between the two great rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the meeting Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum agreed to create a federal system to unite the two emirates.

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This smiling picture of the two great leaders during the 1968 Ruler’s agreement adorns the walls of the Etihad Museum in Dubai. Accompanying the pic at the museum is a detailed written exhibit about the main points of the agreement.

UAE is today a country of chic malls and tall skyscrapers but if you want to trace the events that led to the birth of this ultra modern nation then the Etihad museum is the perfect place to be. Unveiled by Sheikh Mohammed on UAE’s 45th national day the museum explores the emirate’s history between 1968 and 1974 through interactive digital displays, videos and personal memorabilia.

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Designed in the shape of the unification manuscript the roof of the building looks like a sheaf of paper. Seven golden columns in the entrance symbolise the seven pens that signed the agreement. Inside there are several halls, a theatre, a library, educational areas and cafes.

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The first hall dedicated to the founding fathers has seven life size digital pictures of the rulers. Each picture has an accompanying exhibit of their belongings and an interactive screen informing visitors about their biography and family tree.

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This exhibit, for instance, showcases the golden dagger and passport of the late Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad al Sharqi, the founding ruler of Fujairah. Several other memorabilia of the six other  rulers are also well preserved here. Young visitors to the museum get a family pack with activities to keep them engrossed in exploring the museum. The union house where the actual agreement was signed is also part of the museum and so is the 123 metre tall flagpole at the site.

Opening time of the museum: 10 am to 8 pm

Location: Jumeirah Beach Road

Ticket: Adults pay Dhs 25, Students between the age of 5 and 24 pay Dhs 10

 

 

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Inside the Al Noor island

One hot August afternoon we crossed a bridge over clear blue waters to reach a tiny green island in Sharjah. Our first sight was instantly heartwarming — a group of crows were quenching their thirst from a small pool of water. And right behind those birds was an impressive arch shaped building with floral patterns that housed a cafe and a butterfly dome. Excited we walked past the serene cafe, with gleaming white benches, to spot some colourful butterflies. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a disappointing quest as there were hardly any butterflies in sight.

Outside the butterfly house a winding path covered with trees and bushes on either sides led us to a cactus garden, a sandpit and playground for kids. Further ahead, right in the middle of the dense foliage, was an open courtyard room with benches and cushions called the literature pavilion. To the sound of chirping birds, with your favourite book in hand, this indeed was a nature lover’s and reader’s heaven.

There are benches strewn across the island for visitors to sit, relax, read and soak in the greenery and serenity. Kids loved getting lost in the green maze and jumping on the long trampoline inside the garden. At night neon dancing lights gave the whole place a magical hue, fanning visitor’s imagination. We loved every bit of our time marooned on this island.

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Entrance to the cafe and butterfly garden

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Greenery all around

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The cactus garden

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Literature pavilion

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Torus Sculpture by David Harber

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A beach strip inside the island

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Lighted up at night

Flavours of Armenian cuisine

Rich in history, steeped in culture, Armenia, is a gourmand’s dream destination too. While touring one of the oldest civilizations of the world we got to tickle our taste buds with a variety of fresh vegetables, exotic herbs, barbecued meats and diary products. On our first night in Yerevan we dined at Tavern Yerevan on Amiryan street. The highlight of the evening was Piti and Tava Kyufta accompanied by Armenia’s famous Lavash bread.

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Lavash and Piti

Piti, served in an earthern pot, is a soup made with meat, vegetables, potatoes and chickpeas. The broth is tempered with several spices and is cooked for hours. A layer of flaky bread seals the top of this delicious and nutritious dish. Kyufta, on the other hand, are meatballs, but ours was a variant of the traditional meatballs as it was a block of lamb meat served in a pan on a bed of lavash topped with grilled tomatoes.

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Tava Kyufta

No Armenian meal is complete without Lavash bread. This thin, paper-like bread is made from unleavened dough in clay ovens called tonirs. The bread has great significance for Armenians. Bakers bless their lavash dough and make the sign of a cross before baking thus ensuring that whoever eats the bread gets all goodness. Considered a symbol of fertility lavash is placed on the shoulders of the brides and the groom for good luck.

Our Armenian food adventure continued the next day at the picturesque Tsirani Garden restaurant located inside an apricot farm. After a wonderful and insightful tour of Garni and Geghard temple complexes near Yerevan we headed to the lush farm restaurant.

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Log huts amidst apricot trees at Tsirani

Green apricots called Tsiran, waiting to ripen, glistened in the sunlight from the branches of the trees spread abundantly across the garden. We were escorted to one of the many log huts where guests dine. After several minutes of discussions and translations by our enthusiastic tour guide we finally ordered Armenian Lori cheese, a platter of salad, Armenian yoghurt, roasted potatoes, chicken kebab and fish khorovats (Armenian for barbecue).

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Our table at Tsirani

Each dish had a distinct flavour, Armenian food is mostly grilled and barbecued, so there is very less oil used. The only unhealthy part is the high salt content in their dishes. The Lori cheese for instance was too salty for our taste, but the tender roasted potatoes with mild spices and fish khorovat scored higher. As Armenia is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, a glass of wine almost always finds space on the dining table. There is a wide selection of indigenous home grown wines to choose from, and we ordered Armenian red wine. It turned out to be a near perfect lunch, with delicious kebabs, sweet wine and a gentle breeze from the apricot trees.

For me a good meal is incomplete without some sweet treats. And Armenia had plenty to offer to satisfy my sugar cravings. Just outside the Geghard monastery complex were stalls selling Gata, a type of sweet bread.

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Gata bread

They are made with flour, butter and sugar, some are filled with nuts. They are decorated before baking, usually there is a sign of cross and they can be stored for several days. We enjoyed our Gata with tea on all the days we were in Armenia. Very similar to the Georgian churchkhela are Armenia sudjukhs, made with grape juice and nuts. Our morning breakfast table was always adorned with sudjukhs. Apricot is synonymous with Armenia as the country has a rich cultivation and so the fruit finds space in cakes, pies and preserves.

But the real highlight of the sweet trail was the crostata served at the breakfast table in our hotel Opera Suites Yerevan.

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A slice of crostata with cream cakes

Buttery and crumbly it was served every day with a different topping. I think I can go back to Armenia for many other reasons, top on the list would be that yummy crostata.

 

 

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Al Qudra lakes

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This calm oasis is part of a desert reserve called Saih al Salam. A recently established site, maintained by Dubai government’s civic body, the Al Qudra lakes are perfect for picnic and birdwatching. We spotted several ducks and a few other exotic birds. According to the UAE birding website several birds have been introduced in the lakes by the Dubai municipality including Black-necked Swan, Mute Swan, Barnackle Goose, White-cheeked Pintail among others. The area also includes a long cycling track and trek shop selling cycling equipment along small cafeterias.

Road trip to Sur

In March we drove to Muscat and then to the scenic town of Sur in Oman. We had estimated a four hour drive to Muscat and then an overnight stopover at a cousin’s place. But ended up spending almost six hours on road owing to no particular reasons that left us wondering how on earth do all the guidebooks mention the Dubai to Muscat drive as mere four hours. The trip really took off once we left our cousin’s house in Wadi Ameerat the next day. With rocky mountains on either sides the drive instantly became picturesque. Maneuvering through a winding mountain road we first reached Wadi Daqyah Dam in Quriyat. The emerald green coloured dam water interspersed with the brown mountains creates a splendid view. The dam can store 100 million cubic metres of water and even has a small stretch of green where visitors can spread a picnic hamper and enjoy the view.

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After soaking in the beauty of the Daqyah Dam we drove towards Sur, which is over 200 kms from Muscat. Accompanying us all along on one side of the road was the blue sea and rocky mountains on the other side.
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It took us around 3 hours to reach the Ras Al Jinz Turtle reserve. We were booked for an overnight stay here to see the turtle hatching. It seemed a unique activity but soon we discovered that it was an unforgettable one as well. At around 9 pm we gathered in the hotel lobby to go for a group tour of the turtle hatching on the Ras Al Hadd beach. Packed in a mini van around 20 of us were driven through a bumpy road to a lonely stretch on the beach. Our Omani guide told us to stand quietly while he combed the beach area for nesting turtles. Waiting on the pitch dark beach in silence with the magnificent starlit sky above our heads listening to the sounds of the waves became a deeply moving natural experience for me. While I was still soaking in the beauty of the night our guide returned with the good news that he had spotted a turtle. As turtle hatching is a natural phenomenon there are no guarantees that you will get to see one on a tour. So, we were elated at our luck. In a hushed tone he told us about the nesting habits of the endangered green turtle. We were  also warned against taking any photographs of the turtles as flash lights could scare and stop the hatching process. Unfortunately, it means I have no pics of the actual turtle hatching we witnessed.

Huddled together we followed our guide who took us to a part of the beach where a lot of sand had been splattered around. Deep inside a sandpit sat a huge turtle. The turtles fling sand with their flippers to create a pit to lay eggs. Under a dim torchlight our guide showed us how the turtle was dropping eggs into the pit by the dozen. The entire experience was truly magical. We also caught sight of a few baby turtles that had hatched from other pits crawling back into the ocean. The reserve also conducts these tours at daylight when tourists are allowed to click pictures. Alas during our morning trip no turtles were sighted. But the bright sunrise and the beautiful Ras al Hadd beach made up for this as we spent some quiet moments watching these wonders of nature.

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After breakfast we drove back to Muscat and did another stop over at the Bimma  Sinkhole. Located in Najm Park the sinkhole attracts locals and tourists. Although sinkholes are created as a result of soil erosion there are many folklores associated with this one including one involving a space crater. Through a narrow staircase tourists can take a dip in the cool green waters of the sinkhole. Soon we were back on the road with wide smiles to cherish yet another memorable trip. 
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Bubble Art

The little boy looked up in a wonder. “Should I poke it or should I soak in it,” he must have wondered wrapped inside a giant soap bubble standing on stage. ‘Plop’ soon the bubble burst and the audience clapped. The boy still mesmerised by the act enjoyed the attention. As part of Dubai Shopping Festival celebrations this unique performance was part of a bubble show by Italian Canadian artist Silvia Gaffurini at Mercato Mall.
Round bouncing bubbles, tiny floating bubbles and colourful bubble creations Silvia enthralled the audience with her her visual treats.
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Lilting music accompanies her enchanting show wherein kids especially line up around the stage to catch and burst the floating bubbles. Trained by famous Vietnamese bubble artist Fan Yang Silvia has done shows across several countries.
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Pink Flamingos at Ras al Khor

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We captured this beautiful sight at the Ras al Khor wildlife sanctuary. A viewpoint lets visitors catch a glimpse of these pink legged flamingos amidst hectares of mangroves. The site is open on all days except Fridays.

HER – an exhibition by Matilde Gattoni

Gulf Photo Plus, Al Quoz, is showcasing an exhibition of photographs titled HER by award winning photo journalist Matilde Gattoni till Oct 31. Photographer Matilde Gattoni’s career has spanned 15 years in which she has travelled to over 35 countries and four continents. She has encountered and photographed thousands of women from all over the world — from war refugees in Kenya, Lebanon, Syria to Tsunami survivors in Indonesia to women accused as witches in India. Matilde shares that even though the stories of these women are disparate they all are symbols of courage and resilience. Shunned by their countries the women are the backbone of their families.

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Rabiah, a Syrian immigrant was photographed by Matilde in Lebanon in 2012. Then only aged 15 she had left school and a life of fear to escape to a new country. Syrian women at that time had lived in constant fear of being killed and kidnapped. “I wake up crying and screaming,” she had said, remembering her constant nightmares.

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Forty four year old Bhudni Tudu cannot cope with what happened to her. “I don’t have any hope for the future. I want to kill myself,” she said. A resident of Birbans, Jharkhand, India, Bhudni was accused of witchcraft by her family and forced to flee the village.

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Matilde captured this young lady enjoying a splash in the sea in Indonesia, where the Tsunami had made most residents fearful of venturing into the sea.

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Matilde’s exhibition featuring many such women is a tribute to their bravery in times of insurmountable challenges during wars, natural calamities and prejudices.

Dubai Butterfly Garden

I am seated on a wooden bench surrounded by bright flowers and green creepers, the chirping of birds in the backdrop is music to my ears. In this natural paradise flutters in a blue butterfly. Her wings, the colour of the sky, settle on a piece of sticky banana slice kept amidst a pot full of white chrysanthemums. All around me several colourful butterflies sit pretty on flowers and creepers. I experienced this blissful atmosphere right here in Dubai at the Butterfly Garden. Opened in March 2015 it is located adjacent to the Miracle Garden. This indoor air conditioned park is spread across four domes and is open all through the year.
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Around 20,000 pupae are imported from Costa Rica, Philippines and Colombia every week. These pupae are then introduced into the garden. The life cycle of a butterfly is only for around two weeks that means the new pupae need to be introduced to keep butterflies numbers in motion.
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Although you are not allowed to touch the butterflies the park authorities do not object if the bugs willing come and sit on you.
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One of the butterfly garden domes also has a few varieties of caged birds.
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Yet another attraction at the park is a gallery with butterflies in frames. Here is one that creates the face of Sheikh Mohammed.
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Meeting author Sophie Hannah

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This post was long overdue as I met author Sophie Hannah at the Emirates Lit Fest in March 2015. Being a huge Agatha Christie fan it was an unmissable event as she is the only writer to have brought back the indomitable Hercule Poirot back in action since Agatha Christie’s death. In her latest book The Monogram Murders Sophie gives Christie fans yet another chance to discover the eccentricities of one of the world’s most loved detectives.

At the Lit Fest Sophie shared several interesting aspects of writing this novel. She spoke about creating a Scotland Yard detective called Edward Catchpool who assists Poirot in solving the triple murders at the Bloxham Hotel in London. Catchpool is also the narrator in the book and appears loosely based on Captain Hastings, who featured as an associate of Poirot in Christie’s books. To write this novel she read and re-read the entire Agatha Christie book collection and relied on Catchpool as the narrator because she did not want to write in the voice of Agatha.

Authors often take inspiration from their own lives while creating characters and situations. In The Monogram Murders Poirot is living in a lodge a few yards away from his own home because he wants to enjoy a month of “restful inactivity” but he does not like the idea of being far away from home. Sophie recalled that her own father detested travel and in summer holidays when the family was excitedly making plans to visit new destinations he would suggest staying at the hotel in the next lane. “We can walk across and come back whenever we want to said Dad.”

She is also the author of several other bestselling crime fictions such as  The Carrier, which won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards. Two of her crime novels — The Point of Rescue and The Other Half Lives have been adapted for television. She started her career as a secretary and was later offered a writing fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. Sophie told the audience that she always has a rough plan of the book she is writing and aims at finishing at least thousand words in a day. She also puts in a lot of research and counts on a few policemen as her friends.

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