Arabic in the sand for "Happy Birthday UAE."

In New York, once I had kids, I tried to ignore the 4th of July. To me the 4th meant crowds, heat, and noise: too many people jammed along whichever river was the site of the fireworks, too many picnickers having too much to drink; and too much general mayhem for comfort: call me crazy, but the idea of teen-agers roaming the streets brandishing small explosive devices doesn’t seem particularly festive.

Once or twice when the boys were young, we braved the crowds, shoving the stroller ahead of us like a battering ram through the throngs. But in the long run? Not worth it.

What else I don’t do on the 4th? I don’t wear flag colors (I’m a New Yorker. We wear black. Year-round. It’s an entire city filled with women who dress like Morticia and Wednesday). I don’t fly flags from our windows or wear little flaggy lapel pins or have flag stickers on my car (in New York we didn’t have a car). So yeah, pretty much the 4th was a non-event: we’d grill burgers at a friend’s house or have dinner at a restaurant on the opposite side of town from where fireworks were going to be exploded.

You can imagine, then, how surprised I was to find myself strolling down the Abu Dhabi Corniche with a UAE flag stuck into my hair and a UAE scarf wrapped around my neck.

One son wore a UAE wig; the other a UAE jester hat. And husband sported a UAE t-shirt, a scarf, and, occasionally, the jester hat. We were walking ads for UAE National Day, which is celebrated on December 2.

Do I feel more patriotic or attached to Abu Dhabi than I do to the States? No, not at all. In fact in some ways, I feel more like a New Yorker since I’ve moved here than I did when I lived in New York (when I frequently felt like a transplanted Midwesterner, despite having lived in NYC for more than twenty years).

The excitement comes from celebrating something so new.  The UAE is only forty years old and the “Founding Father” of the UAE governed until his death in 2004, so his achievements are part of modern memory, not ancient history.  All this newness seems worth celebrating, don’t you think?

National Day marks the anniversary of the constitutional agreement between the seven emirates–Ajman, Fujairah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwain (Ras al-Kaimah joined the next year)—that form the United Arab Emirates. Prior to this agreement, much of the Arab Peninsula had been a British protectorate, but after oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958, the tribal leadership came slowly to the realization that they needed to be self-governed.  The constitution was signed in 1971, which means the country is seven years younger than I am.  A spring chicken, as far as countries go.

In addition to the standard speeches and school pageants, National Day gets celebrated in ways that delighted my children (and most of the grownups I could see): decorated cars parading up and down the Corniche, fireworks, an air show, and—best of all, as far as my kids were concerned—people on the street and in cars firing silly string and shaving cream in all directions.  The boys were a little unclear on the whole national unity thing, but as far as they were concerned, any holiday that involves silly string should be a monthly occurrence.

We took refuge from the silly string wars on the beach, where we watched the air show and the kids built a sand castle.  Liam wrote “Happy Birthday UAE” in the sand, and I asked him if he could write it in Arabic, which he’s studying in school. He said no, but a lifeguard nearby overheard us and came over to write it for him.

Happy Four-Oh, UAE. We think you look pretty good for a forty-year-old, actually, and that silly string, shaving cream, and sandcastles are great ways to celebrate.

What are YOUR national celebration traditions?

This is an original post for the World Mom’s Blog. For more Abu Dhabi adventures, join Deborah Quinn at

Photo credit to the author.

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

More Posts

Follow Me: