Summoned by business to the Emirates, I landed in Dubai and felt done with the tourist-city in half a day: Photo of window washers on the Burj Khalifa, short walk through a Hindu market, a museum of dioramas of Bedouin life, a four-story fishtank and overpriced breakfast at the Mall. Dubai invites rushing. Happily, my business lay in the desert to the south.
At a hotel taxi rank, I said “Al Ain,” and caused an explosion of shouting. I’m not sure who chose the winner: a well-dressed and slick-haired Arab man in a shiny black car. En route through the suburbs, we did the “where are you from?” “Syria,” he said. The pall. Family is all still there, his brother is missing but his mother sees him alive in her dreams. As we blasted across the open desert at 150 kph, the corner of my eye noted the corner of his: clear exhaustion and sometimes wells of tears.
“Excuse me, aren’t you speeding?”
“No. Is OK. See there, speed limit is 120. You go 20 over. Everyone does.”
Nobody did. Cars fell away from us like discarded booster rockets. His dashboard flashed when he went over 140, but that seemed to encourage him.
Arabia is deep desert: dunes and rocks so barren that Arizona and central Australia are rainforests by comparison. Orange near the coast, gradually redder inland. This is what I could photograph behind a gas station on the freeway as a meter ticked, but in the distance, there were few plants, and finally none.
In the distance, here and there, mesas: the desert rose to a flat area entirely covered with something: a grand building, a lavish compound, a grove of date palms.
But at 150 kph, that was all over fast.
A city of half a million, Al Ain sits straight south of Dubai on a series of oases along the Omani border. It’s mostly flat but sliced by low barren ridges that spread from Jebel Hafeet, a soaring orange ridge to the south. A natural crossroads and watering place, humans have settled here for at least 5000 years, while nomadic Bedouin have come and gone for centuries.
As in most of the Emirates, there are plenty of Westerners working here, and plenty of South Asian “guest workers.” International tourists, though, mostly give it a pass.
It’s a conservative town, and while the public works are lavish as anywhere in this wealthy country, it’s all for an Arab and Islamic gaze. The peak tourist season is for Emirati visitors, and it happens in summer, when this always-warm town is at its hottest, because the coastal cities are too humid then.
No building can be higher than the grand mosque, so the city has built to about five stories in a narrow range of shapes, most quoting the proportions and styles of Islamic architecture. Every buiding contains an element of mosque.
But ultimately, everything is here is because of the oases, the rare abundance of water that comes up in several spots around the city.
Downtown grew on the edge of the largest of them, as a city might grow on a river, but the oasis itself was always protected. It’s about a kilometer long and maybe half that wide. Not a park. An intensive farm, mostly of dates.
Like so many things here, it’s walled. A private people, Emiratis enclose to protect. The effect is often brutal, but here the demarcation is beautiful.
As often in such places, I first found my way in through the back, an unmarked but open door, leading into what I later realized was one farmer’s plot. The irrigation channel was the only path.
The irrigation method is called falaj in Arabic, but it’s probably not much different from what desert peoples have invented in several parts of the world. Springs within the oasis are carefully channeled to take water to every small plot, where leaseholders maintain date palms and the occasional tropical fruit tree.
The trickling serenity is intense.
Fallen dates encrusted my shoes, but also spared me the need to carry water. They were delicious. Now and then I saw one impaled on a spike, like an hors d’ouevre.
Only much later did I emerge onto one of the grand walks.
An infidel, I pause for mosques, notice with curiosity, but stay back. As a visitor, I like these moments when I'm exiled from the local's space, here and open but different. So I move on, watch, and listen ...
Let's end here, where Al Ain began millennia ago, in the miracle of water.