An Emirati Roundabout – Al Ain

by Garry Craig Powell

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.