Saturday, May 16, 2009


May 13, 2009 in the desert between Abu Dhabi and Dubai

He said, “If a man dies in the desert, it doesn’t smell.” I was holding a rib bone in my left hand.

“Same with the camels.”
At my feet, in the compact sand, the forlorn and full skeleton of a ship of the desert lay, bones bleaching in the sun, drying and already weathering in the heat, in the sun and under the relentless pressure blasting of fine sand whipped by the thick desert wind coming in off the Red Sea and over this landscape of shifting and often airborne sand (reminds me of Michael Ondantjee’s elegant descriptions of the Aajej, a wind in the Moroccan desert). The sun had slipped below the horizon 20 minutes earlier, while we had been sitting upon the dunes a mile or so north, but it was yet light, the twilight that comes when there is enough matter in the air to sprinkle the sky with color reflecting off the landscape.

There was still fur and flesh on small parts of this dead beast. The sand brown hair, course, deep-pile carpet thick, still felt just as the hair of the camel I had ridden in Wadi Rum, a few thousand miles and an eternity away. Bits of flesh and tiny traces of sinew still connected to bone at the hind legs, desiccated and mummy-like. The edge of the sand was slipping slowly over the remains, a blanket that will soon enshroud it as the desert has all things throughout the eternity of the struggle between life and death in the desert that the desert inevitably wins. How many bones lay beneath this surface? How much of the dust that gathers on your clothing, slips inside your collar, tickles your nostrils, was once part of something living before being finely ground into powder?

The skeleton was complete until my driver and I disturbed it. The long, elegant neck revealed bone-by-bone, the head, perfectly upright, looking out, as it had in the moment it closed its eyes for the last time, staring ahead – at a six lane superhighway in the desert. The super-transport of the (recent) past had seen in its last, solitary moment the super-transports of today. Less than a generation separated them in this part of the world, in the long, long empty sands that stretch between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

That highway lay no more than 200 yards from the camel’s open grave. At dusk it bristled with lights, moving like a video game show, the low rumble of all those diesel trucks causing a near constant pulse in the ground, a low hum that you could tangibly feel in your soles. There were few passenger vehicles, and those that you could see were on a “beat the autobahn” mission to Mars. Their Testarossa’s and Maserrati’s, BMW’s and Bentley’s shot back and forth across the long straight strip of cement and tar, like a tether pulled taught, in the seemingly endless money of these two tiny Emirates which have captured the world’s imagination and the insatiable desire for oil by a simple twist of geographic fate. This is what the camel saw in its last moments.

In the sand hard by the highway, which is raised above ground level on a long stretched mound to prevent the sweeping sands from doing to it what it was doing to the camel, enormous sections of pipe sat out in the open, stacked carelessly, stretching all the way in either direction of the highway.

“Oil?” I asked.

“Water.” He replied. “Much more precious than oil.”

“20% of all oil revenue goes to making water.” Making water? My driver was born in the South of India, but had grown up in Abu Dhabi. He moved with his family when he was just a child. But he is still Indian, not Emirati. I recalled another driver saying to me in the morning that “he hated the taste of the water here – all processed water, not like my water, not like Pakistani water. That’s real water, water from the mountains.” But he was not in the mountains (which this day is probably good for extending his life-expectancy in Pakistan). He, a cab-driver, like my Indian guide, was in the UAE. Both came for the money. “I hate it here – the heat. But the money…”

There is an irony in the endless oil-bought wealth of the UAE. All that oil, all that mashed up life from bygone millions of years, is fueling an economic boom in a country with virtually no population that is allowing them to do what only alchemists have dreamed of in all the ages of all the world: to make gardens out of the desert.

Drive in Abu Dhabi, in the endless, thick moisture that is the air and you see green EVERYWHERE. Along the highway, that same spit between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the world is being transformed. But unlike almost everywhere else in the world, where the desert is encroaching on what had been fertile pasture or semi-arid land, in the UAE the desert is in hard retreat. There are fields and fields and fields of trees, and endless acres of that most notorious water-thief, lawn grass. Step outside the City onto the Emir’s road and you see entire farms of green – not sheep farms or cattle farms – plant farms. And snaking through each and every carefully planted mound and tree is a tiny black hose, connected, after endless miles, to a water/irrigation system. It’s drip agriculture, dispensing water with great efficiency, little waste and astonishing results. Forests in the desert.

“I think you are another of those desert loving English,” Prince Faisal (who went on to become King of Jordan) said to T.E. Lawrence during one of their first meetings. “While I,” he said. “I long for the gardens of Cordoba.” Those legendary hanging gardens in Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But they are as much legend as archaeology (though more traces of them have been found). To make a paradise in the desert is so utterly far fetched as to become legend. It can’t be done. Except that it can. And the force behind it is oil. The next time you get into your car consider that some percentage of the money you hand to the gas station will find its way back to governments and people using it to make these lush gardens in the desert.

And here’s one – Abu Dhabi, an utterly desert-based country, has, according to a press release by Siemens announcing another desalination plant, “Abu Dhabi has the world's third-highest per capita drinking-water consumption. And according to the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA), daily water consumption is set to increase to 3.57 million cubic meters by 2015.” Longing for the gardens of Cordoba.

It was getting dark, finally. The camel had lost two bones now; that rib bone and now a vertebra. We put the rib bone back.

The vertebra has moved to Washington.

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