- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

Men dancing in the streets and wielding swords. A couple squeezing water from the udders of a fake cow. An 8-foot-tall camel grazing in the middle of the District.

These were some of the images to be seen at the Smithsonian Institution’s 39th annual Folklife Festival, which officially began on the Mall yesterday.

“The Folklife Festival is always different from what you’ve seen the year before, so it’s always a new experience,” said Becky Haberacker, a Smithsonian spokeswoman.

Organizers expect 1 million visitors to come to the festival this year. Last year, more than 800,000 people joined the festivities. Between 40,000 and 50,000 participants turned out yesterday alone, Smithsonian officials said.

This year, the festival features four themes: “Food Culture USA,” “Forest Service, Culture and Community,” “Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea” and “Nuestra Musica: Music in Latino Culture.”

The festival runs through Monday and then again the following Thursday through Monday. For more information, visit www.washingtontimes.com/weekend/20050615-095219-2079r.htm.

This is the first year the festival will feature food and an Arabic nation.

“We want to give [Americans] an idea about Omani culture and to show them how the culture itself is emerging,” said Majid Al Harthy, a graduate student of music in Indiana who accompanied a 20-member Omani band called “Al Majd.”

About 100 festival participants from the small country also came to the festival. Oman is on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

At the “Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea” exhibits, festival-goers can try on jewelry, learn how to weave and dance and try their hand at Islamic calligraphy. They will also learn about building mud houses and boats, which are traditions of the culture and draws on influences from India, East Africa and the Middle East.

Andy Matzner, 35, of Roanoke, came to the festival yesterday to specifically see the Omani exhibit. During his stay, he was called onto the stage to dance with “Al Majd.”

“It was powerful to be accompanied by the music and drums,” said Mr. Matzner, a social worker who uses drums therapeutically in his work and who has only read about Oman. “It was very meaningful for a moment to be part of a cultural tradition and one that you don’t get to encounter very much in the United States.”

Across the way, Russell Farrow, 11, watched two camels named “Richard,” 9, and “Ibrahim,” 2, graze under the watchful eye of their owner, Doug Baum, a zookeeper from Texas.

“I like how you don’t have to go to the desert and you can still see the camels,” Russell said.

At the “Professional Kitchen” booth at the “Food Culture USA” exhibit, visitors learned about the tools used in restaurant kitchens and the degrees that would help them become chefs. The booth was operated by the Marriott and the Culinary Institute of America.

The booth also helped dissolve the “mystique” surrounding the popular Food Network shows and reality-based shows such as “Hell’s Kitchen” that glamorize the culinary world, said Stephan Hengst, the institute’s communications manager.

Aisha Stallworth, 28, of Glenn Dale, said she was “blown away” by the food-carving exhibit, that featured a unicorn, birds and American Indian faces carved out of watermelon, potatoes and radishes.

“I like this festival because it exposes you to a lot of different ways that people prepare their food,” she said.

Meanwhile at a booth nearby, Lynn Arons, 57, a self-described “foody” who loves to cook and eat, listened to the recordings of sizzling bacon and popping corn kernels, then correctly guessed that several unmarked jars contained coffee, cinnamon, garlic and cloves.

“I love seeing the old kitchen utensils, many of which I still use. And I always think smells are really evocative. They bring back all kinds of memories,” she said.

Ms. Arons, who lives in the District, loves the fact that everyone from farmers to mom-and-pop businesses to cultural events are featured at the festival.

“It’s a great community event,” she said, adding that she has attended the festival almost every year since 1976. “It’s important to learn about other places in our world, other cultures. There are a lot of crafts and practices from around the world that people don’t know about and that are about to be lost [because of industrialization]. It’s important to enjoy it while those people are still here to rejuvenate it.”

Other festival highlights include Latino music and an “Edible Schoolyard,” which teaches students the benefits of growing a communal garden.

Whether tourists and locals only dropped by the festival to grab some lunch, the variety of food, Omani culture immersion and other events encouraged them to stay longer.

“I had a free day and this festival is one of my most favorite local events,” Ms. Arons said. “I thought I’d take advantage of a beautiful day.”

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