Nayla Al Khaja takes Grazia behind the scenes with the Expo 2020 National Day orchestra

The first Emirati female director – and Grazia Girl Gang ambassador for Film – takes us to the desert for Expo 2020’s National Day tribute to the UAE
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Nayla Al Khaja takes Grazia behind the scenes with the Expo 2020 National Day orchestra

To celebrate National Day, Expo 2020 Dubai came up with an ambitious project. “With the Year of Zayed, which marks 100 years since the birth of the visionary man who united the seven emirates to create this great nation, what better way to celebrate the 47th UAE National Day and honour the legacy of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan than with a beautiful desert rendition of our national anthem?” Dr Hayat Shamsuddin, Vice President of Arts and Culture, Content and Programming for Expo 2020 Dubai asks Grazia.

Dr Hayat explains, “We wanted our orchestra to reflect the 190 nations that have already confirmed their participation in the next World Expo, so we brought together members from every corner of the globe. Seven Emirati musicians also took part, symbolising each of our nation’s emirates, as well as the unity and prosperity of the UAE as it prepares to host the largest event ever staged in the Arab world.”

And who better to bring this moment to life than Grazia Girl Gang Ambassador for Film, Nayla Al Khaja? “Expo 2020 wanted to tell its Emirati story through the eyes of one of the UAE’s most accomplished and pioneering film directors,” Dr Hayat continues. “How could I say no?” Nayla exclaims. “I dropped everything to be a part of it.”

Filming took place in Al Qudra desert on 16 November, with musicians flying in from as far afield as Australia and as close to home as Oman, joining professional UAE-based orchestral players from a staggering list of countries including Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia, Cuba, Denmark, England, Finland, Holland, India, Lebanon, Korea, Moldova, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Spain, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Venezuela.

Nayla recalls, “It was such an amazing challenge to take on in such a short period of time. What was so exciting was that I’ve never heard my national anthem performed by so many nationalities before. That’s what made it so unique. And to get to direct such a large orchestra is so rare. The opportunity and the amazing energy on set was mind-blowing for me,” she remarks, “and it was such an honour to be asked by Expo 2020 and Boomtown Productions to be involved.”

As the eight-hour shoot began, Nayla told musicians, “Every single one of you is extra special, because what you’re doing is not just any film. You’re actually bringing 47 years of energy, love, movement, everything this country ever stood for, specifically peace and unity, with this performance today.” She added, “This is like a gift to the world. Forty seven years ago, there was nothing but a desert and there was only one nationality – us. And now we have over 180 nationalities living in peace. That’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. So please, when you get tired, remember why you’re here. Play from the heart and give me everything you’ve got.”

The crescendo of the day came as the sun set over the dunes. “I feel the whole orchestra embodied the UAE’s philosophy of being united and being in sync,” Nayla observes. “It doesn’t matter what race, religion or age you are, music transcends all barriers.”

Photos: Courtesy of  Nayla Al Khaja Films