(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for development

(Non)essential — غير) الاساسي)

The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.

I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.

So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.

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النحام الوردية والخراء — Flamingos and Shit

Working with an American university, I am charged from time to time with the organization of a task hallowed by the wisdom of untold school teachers: the field trip. Exploring Abu Dhabi for educational purposes, we in the educational sphere seek out what has not yet been made obvious in guidebooks, not yet sacked and developed as a site just for tourists. Science classes are often particularly lucky — it’s easier to put your hands on hydroponically grown lettuce than it is on, say, Gilgamesh. One eye-opening day this term, I chaperoned students to two sites I had explored: a little-known, natural wetlands, home to thousands of birds in the middle of the desert; and, an endless, gushing river of human excrement.

At the Wathba Wetlands Reserve, I heard for the first time in the UAE frog sounds that were not the sound of someone’s iPhone ringing. Things were alive. The class gathered on a sandy promontory overlooking the vast (for the middle of a desert) network of shallow lakes and resilient shrubbery. All throughout the 5 square kilometers, birds gathered in stark contrast to the only other thing happening in the area — the Abu Dhabi–Al Ain Truck Road, where thousands of trucks chug single-file from the capital to the desert oasis. Visible from this, one of the busiest highways in the whole country, the Wathba Wetlands are still one of Abu Dhabi’s best kept secrets. It’s probably because seeing still isn’t believing; any water off the coast is usually a mirage, any lush hangout for thousands of colorful birds — that’s usually a hallucination.

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Welcome to the Desert, Call Me Sir

Sir Bani Yas is not the name of a long lost Arabian Knight, nor of an Englishman hidden away in the caves of the Emirates’ Western Region. It is a sizable island 250 kilometers down the coast from Abu Dhabi, reachable only by boat, and just a short ferry ride off the one road to Saudi Arabia.

Check-in for the resort — it is (of course) a resort — is on the mainland, miles away from the 34 square miles of desert island that was once as barren as its neighborhood coastline. But in 1971, the late ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, built a palace on a hilltop, imported his favorite African animals à la carte, and established the island as a national reserve. And that — as they say in these parts — was that.

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