An Elderly Emirati Takes a Walk

by Garry Craig Powell

This picture, taken again by Yolanda Reinoso (thanks, Yoly!) shows a ‘street’ in Al Ain. In the residential districts where the Emiratis live, most people live in villas behind walls like this. The roads are six lane highways, and it’s very unusual to see anyone walking beside them, especially a local man, like this one. One occasionally sees an Indian or Pakistani man or bicycle, but the locals travel in luxury sedans–the Lexus and Mercedes are their favourites–and in big four wheel drive vehicles, especially Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols.

This elderly gentleman is wearing the dish-dasha, which is basically a very long shirt, and a gutra, or headcloth, which is wound round the head like a turban. In the first chapter of Stoning the Devil, readers meet Badria, a fifteen year-old Emirati schoolgirl, and her father, who might be imagined to look something like this, although his features remind Badria of a monkey’s. Men of this generation are rarely literate, and even if they can read a little, their education has been at the hands of a mutawa, or religious scholar, rather than at a recognizable school. The elderly grew up in tents and barasti huts (made from palm leaves), without air conditioning, and led lives of incredible hardship. They behave with great dignity, although they don’t necessarily follow western manners. In a bank, for example, an elderly Emirati man will usually go straight to the front of a line, not deigning to queue along with everyone else. (Women don’t have to queue either. It’s considered immoral to make a woman queue along with a lot of men.) In the Emirates, men of this generation were the last who grew up as armed warriors, prepared to fight for their tribe in feuds and raids. In Oman, men still wear thekhanjar,a curved dagger, but it’s more for show than anything. In Yemen, on the other hand, in the south of the Arabian peninsula, men still wear daggers and carry rifles, and use them. The authority of the government is much weaker there.

In this picture you can’t see the flower-beds and lawns that fill the medians in the middle of the road. They are watered, morning and evening, and are often very beautiful. Al Ain is known all over the Arab world as the Garden City. I lived here for five years in the nineties, in the Al Khabisi district–not in a compound for foreigners, as segregation of the Saudi Arabian type isn’t practised in the UAE. I did live in an apartment building provided by the university, but my neighbours included faculty from Syria, Algeria, and Jordan.