Today, December 2, is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates.  Before this historic union, the various tribes (each of whom would come to govern an emirate) were busy trying to kill each other, take each others’ camels, pearls, and women (in descending order of importance, duh), and generally not getting along.

I’ve been thinking today about being in the United States on its 40th anniversary. What do you suppose these post-colonials did to celebrate their historic break-up with George III?  In 1816, the US would’ve been recovering from the War of 1812. Maybe there would have been, what, readings of the constitution? Mugs of hard cider or ale passed around? Dancing in the town square? Do you suppose anyone painted a picture of the US flag on his wagon, or on the side of his barn?

The union of the Arab States, formerly known as the Trucial States (because they’d formed a truce with Britain), marked a seismic shift in this part of the world. For the first time, these warring tribes would figure out how to work together. Led by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nayhan, seven sheikhs came together to create a new entity, independent from the British. These seven countries–Sharjah, Dubai, Ras-al-Kaimah, Abu Dhabi, Fujeirah, Umm al-Qaiwaim, Ajman–form the UAE; Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain all opted out of the union. Sheikh Zayed, who was by all accounts a fairly remarkable man, brokered the deal that led to the British ceasing to govern but continuing to work the newly discovered oil fields (and tithing a very high percentage of their oil contracts to the new country).

Zayed became the first ruler of the UAE; he’s like George Washington and King Arthur rolled into one. But unlike those national icons, who have been dead for centuries, Zayed only died in 2004, after governing for almost thirty years. He’s a legend who people here have worked with, who still exists in popular memory. Abu Dhabi and the UAE itself are incredibly young entities: everything I see as I walk on the streets has been built in the last half-century.  And yet, of course, this part of the world and the religion that undergirds everything  are incredibly ancient.

This juxtaposition (which is sometimes a collision) of the very old and the very new explains why I can be in the parking lot of the huge sports complex where my kids play soccer and see this car, dressed up to celebrate National Day:

But then as I rounded the corner of the car, heading back to the soccer fields, I almost tripped over the driver of the car, who had his prayer mat out on the pavement and was bowing in the direction of Mecca. I stuffed my camera behind my back so he wouldn’t think I was intruding on his privacy, and walked in the other direction.

Just as with any big decade marker, this birthday is being marked with quite a bash: Air Force planes doing maneuvers over the beaches; huge count-down clocks, flags flying from every conceivable vantage point, pageants in all the schools, fireworks for several nights in a row, buildings lit up in a way that would rival anything in Las Vegas.

Appropriately for a country whose primary source of revenue comes from oil, cars seem to be a key aspect of this celebration. The attention to car-decor here puts the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York to shame. We’re talking cars with feather boas, cars with tulle bows, cars with christmas tree lights webbed across the back window.  And spread across windshields, car doors, rooftops, hoods: the faces of Zayed and his two sons: Muhammed, who is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi; and Khalifa, who is the current ruler of the UAE:

The image on the back windshield is of the seven sheikhs on the day of unification.

Khalifa, Zayed with his beloved falcons, and the current leader of the military…on a Chevy.

A boa-car, one of my favorites.  I have no idea why there are stuffed bears in the backseat, but we saw those bears everywhere, even popping out of the sunroof a Porsche Cayenne (which are as common as mini-vans around here; like the Dodge Caravans of the UAE).

It’s a young country. Maybe that’s why right now, as I’m writing this, all I can hear is the sound of car horns, air horns, cars backfiring (apparently drivers do this on purpose to add to the general sense of joyful mayhem. Well…a little bit joyful mayhem and a little bit like being under siege. Youth might also explain the celebratory attacks of shaving cream and silly string being exchanged up and down the Corniche and from car to car: passengers standing up in the sunroof, firing water pistols of shaving cream at the cars around them; spectators spraying silly string at the cars; no one was exempt.  Groups of demure abaya-clad women, in sparkly headscarves, were roving the corniche in packs, each woman with two cans of silly string tucked into her draping sleeves.  They would whip out their cans–pfffffftttt–and then dash off into the crowd, cackling with glee.

I suppose that if silly string had been invented in 1816, even James Madison would’ve sprayed some around the White House to celebrate the fact that against all odds, the U.S. hadn’t imploded. Maybe he even would’ve danced around a bit, like these guys, who were doing some kind of complicated dance that revolved in a circle around several drummers. They were all shouting and clapping and having a marvelous time celebrating this momentous anniversary…although I think they were all from Pakistan.