Stoning the Devil

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

Category: Life in the UAE and Oman

Musandam, Oman

These are fishermen in the Musandam Peninsula, in Oman. This peninsula is situated on the strategically important Straits of Hormuz, opposite Iran. Because the area is so close to Iran, there’s quite a bit of smuggling between the two countries. The whole area is spectacularly beautiful, with dramatic mountains towering over fjords full of dolphins. There are hardly any roads on the peninsula, and people travel almost everywhere by boat–schoolkids go to school by boat, for instance.

You’ll notice that some of the younger men are wearing western clothes–soccer uniforms are especially popular–while the older men favour traditional dress.


The Kingdom of Kitsch

This is Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai–a sort of kitsch recreation of a pseudo-traditional Arab architecture that never existed, though some of its features (like the wind-tower) look real enough. Note also the Emirati girls taking photos of one another, although the Quran explicitly forbids the making of any images of any living creatures by humans. Most people in the Middle East seem to have decided to ignore this particular rule, as photography is very popular, though women are still reticent and shy about having their photograph taken by strangers. Nevertheless, my students at UAE University would often show me photographs of themselves, including ones taken of them in their hostels (dorms), where they would wear western clothes, often quite provocative ones–mini-skirts and clinging blouses were the norm, and they told me they had parties where they would dance to Arab pop music, mostly Egyptian or Lebanese. It is after just such a party that “Titanic 2” begins, in Stoning the Devil. Alia feels rather guilty after waking up the next morning, because she feels that the dancing awakened her sensuality; at any rate she’s just had an erotic dream about her English teacher, Mr. Colin. The sexual awakening causes her a lot of trouble in the pages that follow. And here’s another photo of Medinat Jumeirah, with Burj al Arab in the background. Despite the ‘traditional’ wind-towers, you can see how modern the edifice is, made of reinforced concrete rather than mud bricks, and of course totally air-conditioned. As Wilfred Thesiger said, you can’t blame the Arabs for welcoming comfort into their lives. It’s just a pity that most of them, like most of us, prefer to live in an artificial fantasy world that is a sentimentalized version of the organic one they used to have. I don’t think this is just a matter of taste, of aesthetics. It affects the very fabric of reality. When you live in a theme park, it’s hard to behave like a human being. Instead you start behaving like the celebrities you see on TV and on video games. You become a character in someone else’s narrative. This is partly what Stoning the Devil is about.


The Blue Souk, Sharjah

The UAE is famous for its shopping, particularly its huge shopping malls, which I heartily detest, but some of the more old-fashioned souks or markets can be interesting. This is the Blue Souk in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates (Shariah law holds sway here, because the sheikhdom is supported by Saudi Arabian money, so alcohol is completely forbidden here, even in the foreign hotels). The stalls inside sell carpets from all over the Middle East, but Iran especially, with a fair number from Afghanistan and Baluchistan as well, as well as antiques. You can find the traditional silver jewelry which women used to wear–since the oil boom, they’ve worn little but gold–which is heavy but in my opinion more beautiful than the delicate western-inspired jewelry worn now. I particularly like the forehead circlets, from which silver coins (usually Habsburg Maria Theresas, or copies thereof) hung, and the heavy anklets. There are all kinds of weapons too–the curved dagger or khanjar, which I’ve mentioned before, and which plays a part in “The King of Kandy”–Kamila has an urge to snatch one from an Omani man and go back to the hotel room she’s been in and run amok–as well as scimitars, and more often, rifles. These range from cheap little Turkish guns, about a hundred years old, to the highly prized European army guns, like the British .303 owned by Badria’s father in “Stoning the Devil”, with which he is supposed to have shot a number of enemy tribsemen in a feud when he was a young man. Beautiful brass and silver coffee pots abound as well. I’ve also seen Portuguese sea chests, or chests which the sellers claimed were Portuguese, dating back, so they said, to the sixteenth century. Early gramaphones are common too; I own a His Master’s Voice one, which probably dates to the nineteen twenties. You’ve probably heard that you have to bargain in the souks, and this is quite true. If you don’t, not only will you pay too much, but you’ll deprive the seller of the pleasure of arguing with you. If you do it right, it takes a long time. Usually the seller will order you tea, or a cold drink, and often will invite you to sit on a carpet as you talk. These conversations can take a long time, and at the end of them you feel almost like friends. As a Kashmiri carpet merchant said to me once, a good bargain is one in which both the seller and the buyer come out happy. How true that is! And what a civilized way to go shopping it is.

Once again the photo was taken by my esteemed friend, Yolanda Reinosa. Thanks, Yoly.

Mosque in Jumeirah

This photo (by Yolanda Reinoso again–thanks!) is a fairly typical modern mosque in the UAE. It is in Jumeirah, the beach district of Dubai, where a lot of western expats live. Another resident is Randa, the Palestinian-Lebanese wife of Marwan in Stoning the Devil. After the divorce she lives in a high-rise apartment provided for her by her married Emirati lover, the businessman Khalifa, who also buys her a little sports car and keeps her in clothes. Incidentally, such arrangements are quite common in the Gulf, as they were in nineteenth-century Europe, and are by no means confined to Muslim women. A lot of western women choose to be kept by rich locals. I had a friend, a deeply religious man–in fact an imam–who told me I should I find myself a lover. He said I could find a Sudanese or Somali woman for a very reasonable rate.  He saw no contradiction with his religion. Women were simply a legitimate diversion for him. This same man also strongly recommended Parisian prostitutes.

In the UAE, almost all mosques are reserved for men; women have to pray at home, in general, though in many Muslim countries they are allowed to enter the mosque, but they pray at the back, apart from the men. At the Friday noon prayer, all male Muslims are expected to pray at the mosque and they are very crowded. So crowded are they, in fact, that many people can’t get in, and will pray outside, spreading their prayer mats on the pavements or sidewalks, or even in the roads. Outside my apartment block in Abu Dhabi, for example, every Friday I could see a big crowd in the street outside the closest mosque–so big that traffic couldn’t pass. In any case traffic is very light during the Friday prayers. For this reason, westerners often use that time to run errands. Incidentally, non-Muslims aren’t allowed in the mosques in the UAE either, so I haven’t been inside one there, though I have in Kenya, Turkey and India.

Here is an extract from “A Woman’s Weapon” in Stoning the Devil. Fayruz is Randa’s sister-in-law. She is listening to the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer and watching an Afghan truck driver from her apartment as she begins to relive the trauma of Christian and Israeli massacres carried out in Sabra and Shatila (refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut) in 1982:

Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! The muezzins’ cries broke almost simultaneously from a dozen minarets, filling the sky like a flock of wheeling, screeching, scattering birds. The Afghan spread his mat on the ground beside his truck. God is great! God is great! The echoes tripped over each other, moments apart, high and low, harsh and sweet, poignant, pregnant with longing, as the English said. She had been pregnant with the child of a Muslim militiaman, she couldn’t be sure whose, conceived in a car or an alley, who knew, there had been so much sex, snatched in lulls between the fighting. Trousers round their ankles, those boy-men had fired off their semiautomatic sperm. There is no God but God—but God—but God, the holy cretins sang, and Mohammed is his prophet, prophet. The Afghan knelt. Fayruz hadn’t prayed since the massacre.

All over the cities in the Gulf you can hear the Friday sermons, broadcast on loudspeakers, whether you are inside the mosque or not. The imams (men who lead the prayer–not strictly clerics in Sunni Islam, though they do receive a stipen, and are often from poorer countries like Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia) get very passionate, and often political. Furious denunciations of ‘the Zionist entity’ (Israel) are common for example. People tend to be more devout on Fridays, and non-Muslims are advised to be especially sensitive then.

Bedu Men with Falcon

I took this photo in the men’s quarters in the home of my student and friend, Musabbah, who has been featured in a couple of these posts, including one I deleted. (A cropped version of the photo is on my website, Musabbah and his family lived in Medinat Zayed, a little town in the desert on the edge of the Liwa Oasis. The town was built for the Bedu, as were a whole ring of towns around the capital, Abu Dhabi, by Sheikh Zayed, with oil money. Fifty years ago the grandparents and parents of these people were living in tents. They are immensely grateful to the royal family for having given them ‘everything,’ as they put it. In truth, their villas are very comfortable, they have servants, drive luxury cars, have completely free education, for men and women, up until the end of college, and free healthcare in hospitals reserved for the locals. It’s certainly true that oil has brought undreamt-0f riches to these tribesmen, who fifty years ago lived without air conditioning in one of the harshest climates in the world. Infant mortality was very high then, too.

However, although they enjoy modern comforts–I rarely heard anyone sentimentally long for the ‘good old days’–Emiratis are traditional in their customs and pursuits. Probably no sport is so symbolic of the culture as falconry, or hawking. This was once the sport of the nobility in Europe, though it’s long ceased to be practised commonly there. But in the Gulf, men still love to train their birds, usually peregrine falcons, to hunt desert hares and the hbara, or Arabian bustard. This game bird breeds in central Asia in the spring, then flies south to the Arabian peninsula for the winter. More than once I’ve been in the desert and have come across a lone Emirati training a falcon. He’ll have it tied to a light string, and will toss pieces of meat into the air for the falcon to catch. The falconer has to wear a thick gauntlet, like this one, to avoid serious injury from the falcon’s talons. Emirati men are immensely proud of their birds, which are often very valuable, and you will frequently see a man with one on his wrist in a luxury hotel, having coffee with his friends, just as westerners take their pet dogs out with them. However, they are almost always hooded. An unhooded falcon is supposed to be dangerous. These birds can be aggressive; I’ve heard that they can peck at your eyes if left unhooded. By the looks of it, Musabbah’s brother, the man with the bird on his wrist, was unworried by this. In general, I found the Bedu to be as close to fearless as any people I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure if that was because of their trust in God, which was certainly great, or if it was because the harshness of their lives in the past simply inured them to danger or suffering.

In any case, an interesting consequence of Emirati men’s love of falconry has been that the numbers of desert hares, and particularly hbara, declined disastrously, to the extent that a conservation station was set up near Al Ain, staffed by mainly western biologists and ecologists. These studied the breeding habits of the hbara, made recommendations about how to limit hunting, and so on. So important is falconry as a national symbol that major efforts have been to save their habitat.

You will notice that I have been discussing men all along, because traditionally this is a men’s sport, unlike medieval Europe, where it was enjoyed by both sexes. However, while I taught at UAE University in the mid-nineties, a group of girls on the women’s campus formed a falconry club, which got national media coverage. I believe the girls trained their own falcons, and certainly took them into the desert and hunted with them. In Stoning the Devil, Badria is a member of this falconry club; it suits her fierce and fearless nature. Alia, her cousin and friend, on the other hand, is afraid of the birds, fearing that they might peck out her eyes, as her father has warned her, and on the whole prefers shopping.

I don’t suppose there are all that many women in the UAE who practise the sport, but once again, to my mind, this is an indication of the boldness, the initiative, and independence of Arab women. They will do whatever men do, as long as they are not actively prevented. I have seen the founder of the university women’s falconry club, a slight, pretty girl who designed jewelry, in her black robes, with a falcon on her wrist. This girl hoped to be allowed to study art in Europe. Perhaps the falcons were a symbol to these women of limitless freedom, as well as of power.

An Elderly Emirati Takes a Walk

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.


Florence – or Dubai?

At first glance this is a Renaissance loggia that’s been enclosed for shoppers; note that all the business names are Italian. However, this mall is in Jumeirah, a beach suburb of Dubai, where a lot of wealthy locals and expats live. In Stoning the Devil, Randa, after her divorce, is a kept woman in Jumeirah. In the final chapter of the book, when Badria asks her if she has ever seen Khalifa’s wife, Randa admits that she has–in this very mall. Until that moment she hadn’t felt guilty, but seeing that his wife is an actual person, she starts to feel remorse.

Shopping malls are the focal points not only of commerce in the United Arab Emirates, but to a large extent of social life as well. People of both sexes spend a great deal of time shopping–an activity whose attractions I have never been able to understand–and the cafes are important venues for meeting lovers. They sell luxury goods with internationally-know designer brands. Poorer people, particularly the expat servant class, shop in the souks or markets, which are mostly run by Afghans and Iranians. The malls are selling jewelry, clothes, perfumes, shoes, electronic goods, and so on. Dubai hosts a shopping festival each year, which attracts huge numbers of visitors. Luxury goods are relatively cheap there because of lower customs duties. At least that’s what they claim.

The man in the picture is my old friend and colleague, Kevin Watson, who used to teach with me at UAE University. The photo was taken by his wife, the writer Yolanda Reinoso. (Thanks once again for the photo, Yolanda!) Kevin was the drummer in a band I formed in Al Ain in 1994 or 1995, The Break. I mention this because people often don’t imagine rock bands playing in the Middle East. But in fact we played often, for money, at the Al Ain Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels, as well as the Bureimi Hotel. The audience was mostly expats, though by no means all westerners. The luxury hotels are frequented by people wearing western dress, including Arabs from the Maghreb (north Africa) and the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), and even Emiratis who simply want an alcoholic drink. If you’re wearing traditional dress, in the Emirates, you won’t be served alcohol. (I didn’t find that this restriction applied in Oman.) Alcohol is prohibited to Muslims, but non-Muslims can get an alcohol licence and buy from liquor stores, as well as drink in the hotels. Naturally there’s a Prohibition-style bootleg trade to locals as well. In Al Ain there was an Egyptian-style nightclub with bellydancers frequented mainly by local men who drank enthusiastically, and locals could buy any drinks they wanted at inflated prices from back doors of certain hotels. But westerners are able to enjoy a more or less western lifestyle, with some restrictions. Women are encouraged to dress more modestly, but don’t have to wear a veil. In Dubai, the most liberal city in the UAE, dress codes are hardly different from any western city. In Saudi Arabia, it’s a different matter.

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.