A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
image courtesy of Ali Saleh Bamahysoon
Every year from mid till late July, the city of Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt, hosts a traditional festival called al-Baldah. The festival is named after a star that appears during this season, an astronomical phenomena that takes place on the coast of Hadramawt, from Ash Shihr in the east to Bir Ali in the west. The al-Baldah season is an ancient religious tradition inherited from generations that celebrated the occasion, with its metaphysical and traditional meanings. In modern times, al-Baldah has become a folkloric festival. For years, the festival has been widely promoted and given a touristic, cultural and economic dimension under the management of Hadramawt’s governance.
Officially, the first al-Baldah Tourist Festival took place in 2004 and was organized by the district of Mukalla local authority. From then on, it became an annual event, and an independent and permanent management was established. Its role was to work on planning and research, manage the objectives and outcomes, and follow its impact on economic growth and investment in Mukalla. The festival also worked to encourage various tourist facilities to improve their services to make the best use of this event, and involve them in developing proposals to expand and modernize it in the future. One of the main goals of the festival was to promote tourism and attract visitors through its recreational activities.
The al-Baldah Tourist Festival is named after the al-Baldah star, which carries great significance for the people of Hadramawt, both on the coast and in the valley. This is because its appearance is associated with a favorable climate, including cooler sea temperatures, temperate weather, a fresh summer breeze, and a blanket of fog that covers the coastal cities of Hadramawt. The ripening of dates ready for sale, the planting of palm trees, the cultivation of seedlings and the preparation of the land before the agricultural winter season accompany these changes. The al-Baldah season also carries a special meaning for the fishermen. The sea is choppy and the waves are high, leading to a compulsory break for the fishermen that allows them to rest after the hard work throughout the year. The cold temperatures of the sea are due to strong north winds, and the sea water fluctuates due to weather changes from the beginning of July till the end of the month. The water gets colder as the star enters the middle of the month.
image courtesy of Ali Saleh Bamahysoon
In Hadrami heritage, al-Baldah season has been associated with many traditions and social customs throughout its coast and valley. Bathing in the sea for recreation, sports and entertainment is one of the most important features of celebrating the season across the 350 km shorelines of Hadramawt. Residents and visitors alike head to the cold waters before sunrise to swim and enjoy the splendor of the sea and the beach sands, providing much-needed relief from the summer heat and an energy boost. Some of the locals believe that this cold water has therapeutic and health benefits, including relieving skin diseases and joint pain, lowering high blood pressure and heart rates. This conviction is passed down through the generations and firmly established; people of all ages are found bathing in the sea, especially the elderly. As an ancient local proverb says, “Having a wash in the sea during al-Baldah is like a year of hijama (cupping therapy)”.
The al-Baldah Tourist Festival is a yearly gathering and a seasonal opportunity for expatriates to spend time with their families; every year they plan their visit to their hometown to coincide with the season. The festival enjoys a great momentum especially because it falls during the summer holidays, when schools and universities are off for the summer months. During this season, Mukalla is transformed into a space of recreation and tourism, not only for the locals but also for residents of Hadramawt and other parts of the country, as well as neighboring countries. Mukalla is also a major tourist attraction due to its location. It lies on a coastal strip overlooking the Arabian Sea and boasts beautiful sandy beaches, exquisite bays, and active fishing ports. The Arabian Sea has a unique natural environment that carries in its depths rare species of marine life and different formations of bright coral reefs. All these attractions have encouraged many investors to establish large tourism projects and facilities visible across the city.
image courtesy of Ali Saleh Bamahysoon
During al-Baldah season, the festival sets up a heritage village where a collection of objects and tools that shed light on ancient practices and traditions are put on display. The committee organizes a full program with many activities, including Hadrami songs and folk dances, such as Ada, Shabwani, Hubaish, Ghaia and others, especially those associated with fishermen and maritime heritage. Families gather in squares and gardens around the city, such as the beaches of Khor al-Mukalla, in the city center, and the 60th Street Park. Many events include spending the evenings and nights playing popular traditional games in public spaces. Carnival performances, fishing boat races, sports competitions and theatrical performances are among the activities that are held at the festival. Larger concerts take place involving many artists and musicians, often including dance and musical performances that reflect the cultural and artistic heritage of Hadramawt.
The celebration of the season is not limited to Mukalla, but extends to the different cities along the coast of Hadramawt, including al-Shihr, al-Hami and al-Dais al-Sharqiya. All these cities compete throughout the days of al-Baldah to display their heritage, talents and creativity. However, what sets the festival in Mukalla apart is its greater economic and commercial activity. Mukalla, more than any other neighboring city, remains the face of al-Baldah season and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country. During this time, streets are crowded with pedestrians and cars, often leading to traffic jams, particularly in the city center where the majority of the markets and shopping malls are located. With much effort, traffic authorities work around the clock to organize the traffic and often devise specific road plans in preparation for the season. Hotels are at their fullest capacity and it’s almost impossible to find a place to stay. Street markets and shopping malls become overcrowded, and there is an extensive activity in sales and trading. Traditional markets are a preferred source of attraction for expatriates, with their unique handcrafts and local products. Altogether, al-Baldah festival is an economic opportunity to improve the livelihood of different segments of the population.
Despite its mass success, al-Baldah Tourist Festival has faced various problems and obstacles since its inception. Its once vibrant image has faded over the years due, on the one hand, to the local authority’s failure to meet its financial demands, and on the other, the lack of interest in building on earlier plans to grow it into a regional festival. In addition, the unrest in the governorate of Hadramawt as a result of the war in Yemen has often contributed to the interruption of the festival. However, the interest of the local population in the festival has continued to fill the official gap. In this respect, youth initiatives and community movements have been a central force in reviving and preserving popular heritage. Through their efforts, they have maintained the continuity of al-Baldah festival and its far reaching echoes throughout the region.
Following the liberation of Mukalla from the control of extremist and terrorist organizations on 24 April 2016, the al-Baldah Festival of Stars returned to the city’s skies. It has received generous funding and support from leaders of the province, local authorities and various sponsors and investors. At the moment, the security and stability in Hadramawt is one of the most important factors that will allow the continuation of the festival, and the influx of people from different areas in Yemen and abroad.