Stoning the Devil

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

Month: April, 2012

The Bureimi Fort, and the slave trade

This is the pristine fort in Bureimi, which is right across the border from Al Ain in Oman. When Wilfred Thesiger visited this area in 1950, slave-trading was still common, as this extract from Arabian Sands shows:

“I knew that many of the slaves sold in Hamasa [one of the two villages that made up the Bureimi oasis] were in fact Baluchis, Persians, or Arabs who had been kidnapped, but I also knew that the usual price slave-traders paid for one of them was 1,000 – 1,500 rupees, and for a young Negro even more. An Arab or Persian girl was however, more valuable than a Negress and would fetch as much as 3,000 rupees.”

In fact Thesiger, who was visiting Zayed in Al Ain at the time, managed to persuade the sheikh of Bureimi to release two young men from the Hadhramaut (in Yemen), whom he had bought for the absurdly low price of 230 rupees.

As far as I could find out, the slave market in Al Ain closed in the mid-fifties, but there are still black familes in the UAE (and a lot more in Oman), who are generally the descendants of slaves, and the indigenous Emiratis would refer to black students, to their faces, as “slaves”, teasingly. This was always taken good-humouredly, again, as far as I could tell. It’s something of a shock to realize how recent the slave trade was. Hassan, a young Moroccan I knew, told me that his grandfather was a slave-trader, and Ahmed, a young Mauretanian of the upper class who had been educated in Paris, told me that his parents still kept slaves in their household.

Here is another picture of the Bureimi fort, with my younger son, William, and ex-wife, Paula, about to climb the ramparts. I heard from students this week that it is rumored that I have four ex-wives, including a mail-order bride from the Middle East (as if there were such a thing!) For the record, I’ve been married twice, and neither wife was bought from a slave market, or came from the Middle East.

I would have liked to have ridden into Bureimi on a camel with Thesiger just a few years before I was born, though, I have to admit.

An Emirati Roundabout – Al Ain

Roundabouts or traffic circles are found at most intersections on Emirati roads, and they often have extravagant and somewhat kitschy sculptures or other decorations on them. This one, (in Al Ain, I believe), has amphorae spilling water. Others in Al Ain feature a treasure chest with strings of pearls the size of footballs spilling from it; one with four rearing horses the size of elephants; one with a real dhow marooned on it; and one with a colossal coffee pot on it. The road medians, particularly in Al Ain, are filled with flower beds, which are constantly watered, much to the detriment of the water table in the county. In the background of this picture there’s a modern mosque, and the low-rise commercial stores and apartments that are typical of the city centre of Al Ain, which has a population of about 150,000. This town was once simply a network of oases. Now it has a large university, (the one at which Colin teaches in Stoning the Devil, and where Badria and Alia study), and is the largest city in the interior in the country. Unlike the coastal cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Al Ain has a very dry climate, because it’s in the desert. It doesn’t rain much on the coast, either, but the humidity from the Gulf makes them very sticky indeed, especially in the summer months. I lived in Al Ain for five years. These were the unhappiest years of my life, though the blame for that lies with me and my miserable marriage, not with the city. When the great travel writer Wilfred Thesiger was asked if he was sorry that the old Bedouin oasis he used to know had changed out of all recognition, he was unsentimental about it. He said that the local people lived much better lives now, with air conditioning, good hospitals and so on, but that he was a Stone Age man, and couldn’t live in a modern city. He spent his last years with the Samburu people in Kenya. It’s odd that so many of the great travellers of the Arabia have been British. Perhaps coming from a wet, green island, we long for the harsh beauty of the desert. Or perhaps, coming from such a crowded country, we simply long for silence. It’s true too, as TE Lawrence said, that there are no more noble people than the Bedouin–even though they drove him mad at times–and it may be that a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon derisively but accurately called us, has a hankering for the feudal life that seems to linger in the English memory, a life where men are warriors and honour and courage are the supreme virtues. Thank you, Yolanda Reinoso, for the photo.

Palace in Abu Dhabi

Here is one of the late President Zayed’s palaces, in Abu Dhabi. I’m not sure how many palaces he had, but it’s customary to have a house for each of a man’s wives, and Zayed had children with six wives, though of course he never had more than four wives simultaneously. I believe that this palace was the residence of Sheikha Fatima, his senior wife. I believe he had twenty-seven children. The eldest, Khalifa, became sheikh of Abu Dhabi Emirate, and President of the UAE, on his father’s death in 2004.

The huge families of the sheikhs constitute the aristocracy of the country. There are not only royal families for each of the Emirates–Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Umm al Quwain and Fujairah–but in addition there are sheikhs of other places, like Al Ain; these might be compared to counts or barons, perhaps. Most are very wealthy now, but only fifty or sixty years ago would have been tribal chieftains commanding a few dozen warriors.

In Stoning the Devil, Badria claims to be from a “good family”, which means noble birth, and such claims are very common. Sheikhs and sheikhas are certainly treated with the greatest respect, and even fear. When my son James punched a young sheikh  who was in his class at school–this was a fifteen year-old who already had a Ferrari and his own palace guarded by armed men in HumVees–everyone was convinced that he, my son, would go to jail or be exiled, but this didn’t happen. However, it’s not generally a good idea to make an enemy of a sheikh. This is still a very traditional society, in terms of social structure.

Making Coffee

This is my student and friend, Musabbah, making coffee the traditional way, grinding the beans with a mortar and pestle, on his camel farm near Liwa. Musabbah is Bedouin–his father knew Sheikh Zayed personally–and lives very much like a modern man (he especially loves fast cars) but like most Emiratis, he cherishes his traditions too. He loves his camel farm. Some of the camels, which are bred for racing, are worth as much as a Porsche.

I can’t think of Musabbah without smiling. I can’t say he studied hard, but he brought joy and laughter into every class he attended. I’ve rarely met anyone with as much gusto for life. He was resigned to being married to a cousin, but in the meantime was enjoying himself as much as possible. Once he turned up at the university with two young Filipina women in his Nissan Patrol. He had given them teddy bears. He was a great fan of Britney Spears, more for her anatomical attributes than for her singing talent. He also liked Bill Clinton, whom he considered a man after his own heart, and he thought Mona Lewinsky a very attractive woman. He was in a car crash in which his companion was killed, and he was badly injured. He told me it was God’s will that he was spared.

I, my then then-wife and son were invited to his house on one occasion, and we spent a fascinating day there. My wife was taken into the women’s quarters, and I didn’t see her for the rest of the day. She was dressed up in Emirati clothes, painted with henna, fed and showered with gifts, including a diamond necklace. Meanwhile my son and I spent the day sequestered with the men. I used the house as a model for the one described in “No Free Lunch”, in which Randa, the Palestinian refugee, is looked after by Sultan’s charismatic sister, Badria, while her Emirati boyfriend, Khalifa, is entertained by the men. (However, none of the characters in the book is based on anyone in Musabbah’s family.) Never in my life have I been presented with so much food, or expected to eat so much! The food was brought heaped on huge silver platters by Asian maids, and we ate on the floor, using our fingers. It was a wonderful day, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience the legendary Bedouin hospitality and generosity. I wish the xenophobes who are always urging the US government to bomb Muslims could meet people like Musabbah and his family.

Emirati Villa

Photo by Kevin WatsonThis is the kind of villa that the Emirati characters in Stoning the Devil live in. As you see, there’s a high wall for privacy. Compounds have separate men’s quarters, in which the head of the household and his sons sleep, and women’s quarters, for a wife and daughters. If a man has more than one wife, he’s supposed to have a separate house for each. He can sleep with any wife he chooses, whenever he chooses. A woman’s sons are free to visit the women’s majlis or living area whenever they want, but they don’t generally sleep there unless they are very small.

Inside these villas, the furniture is often baroque in the extreme: lots of gilt, fancy carving, and so on, though people still sit on divans on the floor, as well, and generally eat sitting cross-legged on the floor. There are huge flat screen TVs (as in No Free Lunch, where the Palestinian refugee, Randa, visits a Bedouin villa) and extravagant beds, sometimes with cushioned red hearts and lights on the headboards. Thank you, Yolanda Reinoso, for allowing me to use this photograph.

UAE University, the Men’s Campus

This is the Men’s Campus of UAE University in Al Ain, the college attended by Badria and Alia in Stoning the Devil. Colin teaches at this university too. As you can see, it’s built in contemporary Islamic style, with nods to the traditional pointed arch. The mosque and its minaret are quite prominent. As the name implies, there are separate men’s and women’s campuses at this university. I taught on the men’s campus for one semester. All the instructors were male. In the past, women had been allowed to teach on the campus, but a number of them slept with the students, which was not appreciated by the authorities. On the other hand, men were allowed to teach on the women’s campus, and I taught there for four and a half years. There were certainly transgressions there too, on occasion. The students often developed crushes on their male instructors, and showered them with gifts of chocolates, flowers, and romantic notes. (I know this from experience!) Office hours for the younger and better-looking male instructors would be largely a matter of flirting with or fending off would-be flirters, according to the character of the instructor. Most of these flirtations were probably innocent, though one of my colleagues eloped with a student of his, married her, and lives with her to this day in the USA. There were also frequent flirtations between male and female students by email, and I have no doubt that some students had the ingenuity to arrange meetings in town. However, the Women’s campus was an almost impenetrable fortress, with high walls, guard turrets, and all access controlled by security guards (like Mohammed in “Titanic 2”), so that it looked much like a prison from the outside. Students from Al Ain, who usually lived at home, were allowed to come and go, as long as a male relative picked them up, but other students were not permitted to leave the campus during the week. (At weekends they could go home, either by family car or by university bus). In general, the only place they could go outside the campus was the university library, which was close to the men’s campus. However, unfortunately for would-be lovers, there were separate hours for male and female students to visit. The library was much less censored than you would expect.

In general, the men were much poorer students than the women. They rarely did homework, were frequently absent, and often behaved like young teenagers, talking among themselves and not engaging in the classes. All the same, they were invariably charming when encountered as individuals. The women worked harder, in general, probably because most of them wished to get jobs when they graduated, and knew that this was their only chance of postponing marriage and leading an independent and fulfilling life. Many Arab women, even in the Gulf, have been able to find rewarding careers because education is open to them now. (For instance, the CEO of Emirates Airlines is, or certainly was, a woman.) There are no discipline problems on the Women’s Campus either. Not all of the women are interested in their studies, of course, but they tend to show more respect to male instructors than their counterparts on the Men’s Campus. In Stoning the Devil, Alia wants to be a chemical engineer, and Badria studies journalism so that she can become a TV presenter.

UAE University may not be the best college in the world–no college with censorship provides a great education–but, to Sheikh Zayed’s credit, college education is free to all, and it has given real opportunities to Emiratis of both sexes and from all backgrounds, as well to countless Sudanese, Palestinian, Jordanian students as well.