Stoning the Devil

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

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.

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.

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.