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Canada celebrates in the United Arab Emirates.

In mid-February, ten Canadian authors, illustrators and performers headed off to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, to participate in the first ever Canada Celebrates, a week of cultural exchange celebrating reading and literacy, and featuring Canadian children's books, art, animated films and music.

The week was the brain child of two enthusiastic, energetic Canadian women living and working in the UAE: Anami Naths and Sybil Harrison, both educational consultants with a wealth of experience and a passion for books. One evening, as they reminisced about the wonderful children's books they had cherished and shared with children in Canada, they thought about how wonderful it would be to share those books with children in the UAE. With most people, the idea would have evaporated as many dreams do--but being determined and tenacious, Anami and Sybil approached the Canadian Ambassador, His Excellency David Hutton, who approved the event and hired the dynamic and resourceful Dr. Diane Forestall, to organize the project. And so, Canada Celebrates was born, with numerous sponsors, including the Canadian Embassy and under the patronage of His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Education.

The participating Canadian artists were representative of the cultural diversity of Canada and included authors Roch Carrier (his wonderful partner Nina also attended), Paul Yee, Paulette Bourgeois, Maxine Trottier, and myself, Rachna Gilmore; illustrator Brenda Clark; illustrator, animator and director Sheldon Cohen; performers Fred Penner and Paul O'Neil. Also present was the globe-trotting Canadian photographer Helene Tremblay.

In Canada, the artists accepted the invitations to visit the UAE with alacrity! Who wouldn't go there in the middle of February? We discovered later that the organizers had been concerned about whether many of us would accept the invitation. Clearly they had forgotten February in Canada--and underestimated the wander-lust of artists. They were jubilant at our acceptances and the energy of their whoops and cheers somehow reached across the miles and charged us even further.


The journey was a long one--15 hours from Toronto--but a journey eased by the generosity of Etihad Airways, who flew us Business Class. We ate, slept, chatted, and arrived plum worn out from crooking our pinkies while sipping champagne!

Abu Dhabi, where we stayed at a five star hotel, with wonderful international food, is a huge city of high-rise buildings and wide multi-lane streets where the automobile is king. It is a booming city, with construction going on constantly; a testament to the energy, resourcefulness, vision and determination of the Emiratis. A model of the city in 1959 depicts Abu Dhabi as largely desert, with a handful of wooden huts and some mosques. Now it is a thriving modern metropolis and still expanding. But amongst the tall modern buildings, at regular intervals, are beautiful domed mosques.

On our first full day in the UAE, despite the jet-lag, we toured the nearby city of Dubai (also huge and modern, also expanding) and were briefed on some of the cultural considerations to keep in mind--most of it common sense.

And so began the work. Every weekday morning, which in the UAE, is from Saturday to Wednesday, we met children and their teachers from a variety of schools, both international and local, to share our stories, our passion for creating them, our songs, animated films and art. Overall, we saw nearly 2,000 students and their teachers! Thanks to the wonderful organization of our hosts, the children were well prepared and had read some our books--purchased in large numbers by Canada Celebrates, thank you!

Most of the events were held at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, a gracious, sprawling building, with a serene ambiance, and generous, friendly staff. And also a charming, quirky caravan of painted wooden camels! As Canadian artists, with cultural heritages from around the world, we brought and shared an international range of stories--and met children with even more diverse, international backgrounds. It was an exhilarating, energizing and joyful exchange. All children, whatever their heritage or background, delight in stories; their enthusiasm and engagement was palpable, as was the support and appreciation of their teachers, who told us again and again how starved they were for cultural events of this nature.

The CANSCAIP Collection, a travelling exhibit of art from members of the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers, was also a highlight of this week. Children viewed the diverse and dynamic art collection, hung at child friendly height, and had the chance to dream, to wonder, to imagine stories.

Also present for viewing was Helene Tremblay's deeply moving exhibit of photographs entitled Humanity: An Intimate Portrait. This exhibit, featuring photographs accumulated from Helene's sojourns with families from around the world, seemed to capture the spirit of the week--a sharing of our stories, and a resounding affirmation of our connections and common humanity.

Thanks to the wonderful care and hospitality of our hosts, who were mindful that this was to be a week of cultural exchange, we also had plenty of time to play and explore, to spend time with our hosts and other artists, to sightsee and shop, to party and to rest--although it must be admitted that with all the activities, rest was in short supply! We explored exotic resorts, old souks (markets), toured Abu Dhabi, where we saw the ultra swanky Emirates Palace Hotel, and visited a Heritage village, depicting life as it was traditionally lived in the desert. And we visited the desert in a caravan of zooming vehicles, twisting sideways at times, hurtling up and down dunes. Exhilarating!

All in all, the week was a whirlwind--albeit an impeccably organized whirlwind, thanks to Diane Forestall, all our hosts, and the 40 volunteers from the Canadian community.

But amongst the plethora of images and experiences, there are some that represent the quintessence of my visit to the UAE ... the chanting of the muezzin's call to prayer at 5:30 in the morning, broadcast by loudspeaker--a haunting, melodious sound; the fragrance that seemed to permeate the Cultural Foundation, a subtle, sweet one; many moments of laughter, sharing tales, breaking bread with the other Canadian artists, and our hosts; the generosity, warmth and hospitality of our wonderful hosts and the volunteers from the Canadian community, amongst whom, much to my delight, was my cousin, whom I had last seen years ago at a family picnic in PEI! And the many parties and get-togethers, some planned, some impromptu.

But of all the special moments, two stand out. One was a visit to the desert. It is magnificent! Undulating dunes, ever shifting curves sculpted by the wind, rippled and shadowed, with extraordinary shades of colour. And air that somehow reflected the delicate palette of the sand. After a traditional meal, lounging on cushions, a few of us wandered away into the darkness and lay on the sand, looking up at the stars. Someday, I want to return to that desert, sleep the night in the desert and search for stories. Search for stories for the little girl who, in one of my presentations--when I spoke of how I go for walks to pound out my story ideas--asked me, asked me twice, if I would go for a walk in the desert ... and come up with a story idea....

And the second was at a cocktail party honouring the volunteers. It was held in a large patio area of a five star hotel, by the water. Laughter, excited chatter and merriment sprinkled the air at the conclusion of an exciting and successful week. After all the speeches and thank-yous, Fred Penner called up all the Canadian artists. And there, standing together, by the water reflecting the patio lights, with Fred's mellow baritone leading us, we belted out "O Canada." There weren't many dry eyes!

But in the end, it was the sharing of stories that mattered the most. The enthusiasm and delight of the children. The excitement and eagerness of the teachers. A glorious affirmation of the universality of stories, and of the power of stories--to reach through cultural differences, right to the heart of listeners. A triumph of our common humanity. What this week was all about.

The letters we received, the feedback from children and teachers and volunteers, all indicate that the week was a resounding success. But that word success doesn't quite cover it. There is a collective energy that grows and grows when stories and songs and pictures are shared--a collective energy that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. This was such a week. I am hopeful, as are the organizers, that it will be the first of an annual event in the UAE.

Rachna Gilmore's latest book, The Sower of Tales, is the 2006 winner of the National Chapter of Canada IODE Violet Downey Book Award.
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Author:Gilmore, Rachna
Publication:Canadian Children's Book News
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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