The month spent touring to promote my book was always going to be family unfriendly and so I had booked a fortnight away at the end of March. It was planned as a ‘fly and flop’ break to a place called Ajman in the United Arab Emirates.
No work was allowed which was welcomed all round, but you cannot switch off the sky and so, when my wife wasn’t looking, I revelled in some of the spectacular opportunities to check sunset directions, wave patterns and stargazing, as well as watching Venus and Mercury head to bed each night. I did also force the kids to play, ‘Who can spot the moon first?’ which was a good way to get them to chill out for a few seconds before teatime.
Mounir returns to the Landcruiser
However, it has to be said that the visibility wasn’t as good as I had come to expect in a desert region, due to a mix of pollution from the nearby Dubai, humidity from the surrounding sea and also a bit of sand from the desert itself hanging in the air.
A few days before we were due to head home, visibility deteriorated in other parts of the world as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano began to make the headlines and the word ‘cancelled’ started to propagate across the departure boards of Europe’s airports. We were stuck. It was worrying, but not horrific.
The only silver lining to come from this delay was that I was no longer ‘banned’ from working and so, having done all I could to ameliorate the situation, not a huge amount in all honesty, I picked up the phone and began to scheme.
Twenty-four hours later I was sitting in a Toyota Landcruiser with a marvellous Tunisian guide and interpreter called Mounir. We drove out into the desert on the Sharjah-Dubai border under the hot afternoon sun and, after watching the sand change from near-white to off-red, we pulled up outside some low buildings. An Indian man was attending to three beautiful Arab horses. Mounir and I chatted as we patted the horses. A dromedary appeared on the horizon and he explained how the dromedaries tolerate long periods without water, not just by storing water in the fat of their hump, but also because the metabolism of their blood changes – he used the word ‘split’ repeatedly. I pointed to the bulge in a long white wall. ‘Al Qiblah?’
The niche in the wall showing the direction of Mecca
Mounir nodded. The bulge indicated the direction of Mecca, which in western Europe we come to think of as being close to east, but here of course it is different. By using the sun and some TV satellite dishes, I gauged the direction of Mecca to be closer to west-southwest from that patch of the desert. After looking at the ripples of sand and the way the ghaf trees had been swept by the southwesterly winds, I climbed back in the brand new Toyota and Mounir drove off, attacking the soft sand undulations with the accelerator pedal. We passed a very old, pale and tired Land Rover Defender. We drove off-road to a ‘freej’, a Bedouin settlement. These days all the Bedouin in the UAE have nice villas, they are handsomely supported by the oil-rich states. However, their customs have not been so readily modernized, the compounds mimic the layout of the old tents and the women, especially, like to gather in tents or shelters made from palm leaves, to chat and catch up.
A very suave looking man in his thirties, dressed traditionally, but with some expensive-looking sunglasses, was playing with his children in a garden.
‘Would you like to talk to this man?’ Mounir asked.
‘Definitely.’ I replied.
Mounir left me in the car and cautiously approached. After a short conversation and some gentle gesticulating, Mounir returned and fired up the Landcruiser. He was evidently very excited.
‘You are very, very lucky.’ He said.
‘His father, he is the sheikh. He will see you.’
We drove round the corner and Mounir parked up at a distance from the compound. He explained that it would be rude to go straight in as the men would take umbrage if we saw any of their women. The women should be given time to move out of the public spaces and into private areas.
A tall, thin man, in simple traditional dress beckoned us over. It was the sheikh himself, standing with his son at his side. He emitted a glow of good health, the look in his eyes was friendly, but shrouded in a squint of calm authority. His name was Abid.
Abid, the Bedouin sheikh, stands in front of his tent.
He invited us in to his home. We slipped off our shoes and walked into a very basic square room off a bare hallway. There were thin rugs around the outside and a brightly coloured soft table by one wall. We took our places around this soft table and were offered small porcelain cups of strong cardamom coffee and dates, both of which were delicious. On the wall opposite, there was a TV on a high bracket, the sheikh had been watching the camel races and he continued to glance up at the TV for the next half an hour. Next to the TV was an air-conditioning unit, but that was the full inventory of the room.
When Mounir indicated that the time was right I began to ask Abid some questions, via Mounir, who translated.
Abid explained how the Bedouin used stars to find their way, but they remembered them in association with the major features that were of interest. One star, perhaps called ‘Al Jah’ they would use if heading to the coast for example. Al Suhil was the one used for heading south. He did not profess an intimate knowledge of the stars himself and explained that the knowledge of the local fishermen would exceed his and indeed any landlubbers in the UAE.
Something that I was very keen to ascertain was whether he personally was aware of the seasonal variation of the direction of sunrise and sunset. This has become my benchmark test of how well connected a person remains with their natural environment. He was aware, beyond doubt, and this was secretly a relief for me.
Abid seemed keen to discuss the postwar era when he worked directly with the British. He had fond memories and even in a foreign language the nostalgic emotions were palpable. There was one British Army Captain in particular who he talked of. As Mounir translated:
‘The British were good. They eat camel meat, drink coffee [cardamom], drink ginger milk. It is good. The Captain and I worked well together. If I asked him a question, he was very honest. He would say either, ‘OK’, or, ‘Fuck off!’. Always one of these two. And I was honest. If the Captain asked me something, I would reply either, ‘OK’, or ‘Fuck off!’ We worked well together.’
Mounir and Abid laughed and I joined in as a young woman entered with the traditional frame mask across her nose and put a jug of ginger milk down on the table. We slurped it enthusiastically. Abid’s son rejoined the room and sat next to me. He glanced up at the racing camels and then pulled out a mobile phone and began texting.
I asked Abid about the moon. He did not think there was much to discuss, but then became very animated.
‘Very important. This is very important!’ Mounir repeated the emphasis. ‘No travel in first ten days of moon.’
Abid was explaining that the Bedouin do not travel at night for the first ten days after a new moon, nor in the last five days of the moon. This makes sense for good practical reasons concerning light levels.
A one-eyed, very elderly and dignified man joined the room and sat with us. He poured himself a coffee and worked his way through some dates.
Abid, Mounir and I discussed Arabic poetry. They agreed with each other that there was not a lot of point in translating such poetry into English as the beauty would be lost, even if the translation was accurate. The young masked woman returned with a large, heavy plate of watermelon slices. Abid gestured towards the watermelon and I took a slice, as he continued to talk.
‘You should cancel everything.’ Mounir translated, glancing between us. ‘You should cancel everything and you will not stop eating until ten o’ clock!’
I thanked him and then he launched into a fun tirade about the importance of eating well and how he looked younger than I did, despite being eighty!
We talked some more and Mounir repeated for the fourth time that we were in the company of pure Arabs, not Iranians or other interlopers. Then we walked outside and Abid showed us his tent, very proudly. I asked if it was OK to take his photograph, Mounir thought not, but Abid understood the question from our body language and said that it would be OK to photograph him, but not any women. I took his picture and then thanked him repeatedly for his incredible hospitality as we walked by to the car. He waved once, then turned and began organizing those around him with practiced flicks of his hand.