Stoning the Devil

The Gulf, its people and landscapes; Arab women's lives; Stoning the Devil, my novel-in-stories

Month: March, 2012

An Oasis in the Hajar Mountains


This is the road to Al Khatwa, just across the border from Al Ain, in Oman. In the middle of the oasis, which is huge and consists mainly of date palm plantations, there’s a modern village, of modest concrete houses with window A/C units. The old village, which was of mud brick, is about 5 kms. away. Once, here, an old man saw me and my family from perhaps half a mile away; he waved, and set off towards us. We waited. When he came up to us, we saw that he had a plastic shopping bag, which was full of oranges he’d grown. He gave them to us, and almost before I could thank him, started walking away.

And here’s a close-up of the oasis. To me, and probably to the locals too, it always seemed miraculously green and lush; you can certainly understand the Quranic vision of paradise as a green place fed by streams and rivers when you travel through the desert and the barren mountains, which change color from brown to rusty-red, orange, crimson, and violet, as the sun sinks. The mountains are jagged, merciless, peaks. They always make me think of the Old Testament. No wonder, it seems to me, that such a harsh place spawned prophets with such uncompromising visions, such certainties, such polarized views of good and evil.

Sheikh Zayed, first President of the UAE

This is Sheikh Zayed, the beloved ruler of Abu Dhabi Emirate from 1966 on, when he deposed his brother Shakhbut, probably with British connivance, and President of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004. When I lived there, from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2000 to 2003, portraits of Zayed, almost always grinning, wearing sunglasses, and looking youthful (he was born in 1918) with his black beard, were ubiquitous. He was often seen mounted on a white charger. In “Stoning the Devil”, Badria, who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, wonders briefly if God looks like Sheikh Zayed, as she doubts both heavenly and earthly justice. However, in the eight years I lived in the country, I never heard a local say anything critical of the President, and most Emiratis clearly adored and venerated him, frequently referring to him as their father. In fact, the historical record shows him to have been an unusually wise and generous ruler. He used the vast oil revenues of the country to bring universal health care, universal free education, including for women–he believed that women must play an important part in the country’s development, and encouraged them to study and work–as well as economic infrastructure. He began the process of ‘greening’ the desert–though that may have some unforeseen ecological consequences. He allowed religions other than Islam to practice their faiths, as long as they did not proselytise. It’s true that by western standards he was not a democratic ruler, but on the other hand, any Emirati could visit him in his majlis, or council, any week, and speak to him in person, so there was a form of direct consultation only possible in a very small population. Some westerners have criticized him for continuing to allow camel racing, which employed child jockeys from countries like Sudan and Pakistan, and others have argued that his rule was absolute, but the fact is that by the standards of the Middle East he was extraordinarily tolerant, generous, and progressive. He was also personally charming, according to everyone who met him, and Wilfred Thesiger, the last of the great English “Victorian” explorers, who mapped much of Arabia for the oil companies in the late forties and early fifties, said that he could ride and shoot like a Bedouin–a great compliment. I have met a Bedouin man of his generation who knew him, an illiterate man who nevertheless had great dignity and self-confidence, like most elderly Arabs (compare them to the elderly in the west, who are treated as fools and often behave apologetically!), and this man regarded Zayed as a hero and the true founder of the nation.

Bida Bint Saud

This is the rocky outcrop that Badria and Alia come to in Badria’s Jeep in the story “The Jinni Crouching Behind Her.” (If you have not read the story, Alia is pregnant, and they come out here for her to take an Omani potion made from camel saliva and crushed ants, which the locals believe–correctly, usually–will cause an abortion.) The hill is popular with expats who come out here to drive their four-wheels, but it also has a more gruesome reputation. It’s said to be a place where honour killings take place. Girls who have disgraced their families are supposedly brought here–and what happens to them is reflected in Alia’s fantasy.

Bida Bint Saud is only about ten or fifteen kilometres from Al Ain, but along the road there are camel farms, a couple of tiny mosques, and not much else, and beyond this there is the only the endless Arabian desert. I used to come out here alone, look at the prehistoric tombs (which are also mentioned in the story), then stand on the cliff edge and imagine myself stepping off and gliding over the dunes, like a bird of prey. For some reason too I would always think of the scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence goes off into the desert on his own to put on the robes of a sharif; and making ridiculous gestures, is caught out by an Arab–Omar Sharif, I think. You can’t help feeling a little like Lawrence in such places. You want to be an Arab. The desert has such grandeur, such epic sweep, that if you have an ounce of romanticism in you, you feel inspired.