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Remember the Desert

By Patrick DE CAROLIS Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah Beach

Night was looking to take over the city but Dubai, the insomniac, was defying the incipient obscurity. Far up on the 32nd floor, leaning his elbows on the railing of the immense terrace, he inhaled the sea air. As at every stopover, he was staying at the Sofitel Jumeirah Beach. He appreciated the staff’s friendliness and loved lingering in the impressive imperial suite which was systematically reserved for him. At each of his passings, he set down his dreams and his baggage there. He never derogated from the rule. He liked being recognized and in this fast-paced life that destiny imposed on him, he was trying to reestablish a few reassuring habits so as not to lose all his landmarks.

 

His existence was an uninterrupted succession of business trips, cold- hearted contract negotiations, anonymous professional encounters, romantic adventures with no tomorrow. He didn’t complain but age was catching up with him. The wrinkles were more heavily marked on his hairless face. Unlike his kin, he refused to follow the fashion of thick beards and flatteringly large mustaches. His Anglo-Saxon studies must have rubbed off on his hair growth. He smiled half-heartedly at this joke his brothers repeated at will.

No, he regretted nothing in his life. He had become a powerful man, respected and envied. The notoriety of the Waled AL. B. Corporation, the firm he himself created and which was named after him had spread well beyond its home country. Everywhere he went he was greeted with deference. His financial ease played in his favor.  He was not fooled but his wealth was not his only asset. His presence, his sharp eye, the mastery with which he maneuvered in the most complex situations inspired esteem. And yet, was he vain? He had always been lucid about himself and his circle. Perhaps he had become an old wise man like his father. It was hard for him to imagine. They were so different, their destinies so opposed.

What did they have in common? Belonging to the same line, to a tribe that claimed its Bedouin origins, to this desert people, proud and independent from which his family issued.

****2****

“Abou, Abou, please let me keep it.   I will look after it, I promise. It is so small, so skinny, the vultures themselves wouldn’t want it…”

The child stared at his father defiantly. The father crouched near his son and with a rough hand, the skin like parchment glimmering copper

 

reflections, stroked the fragile gazelle. The victim’s body trembled sporadically. It whimpered quietly, its head turned toward the sky. Doubtlessly surmising its inevitable sacrifice. The suffocating atmosphere irradiated a blinding clarity. The wind began to rise and the sand slapped the father and son’s faces, their keffiyehs flying in the air like long white birds.

“Waled, you are my eldest, I have absolute confidence in you but how could I exhaust your wish? Your mother, your brothers and sisters have hardly anything to eat.”

With a compulsive gesture the child enfolded the dying beast at his feet. His father raised his hand. The son believed that he would be struck and he recoiled.

“My son, do you really think I would harm you? This hand was not given to me to punish you but to help you grow. If I must stand against you it is for your own good. Don’t force me to be severe with you. The little meat we can get from this animal will still be a small comfort to your people.

For weeks we have had to be satisfied with camel milk and roots. Think of them.”

The young boy lowered his head, ashamed of his childish tears. His father was right, he should behave like a man. At only seven years of age, he understood the scope of the words; the desert was not for the weak. He knew it. The climate was too harsh, existence too demanding for self-pity. These last months were particularly hostile. The violence of the sandstorms, the oppressive heat which had persisted for months had exhausted the elders’ strength.  Food and water were lacking.                                                                                           The wadis were dried up and the oases overcrowded in these times of drought.

Without tribal unity they would have survived with great difficulty. The Rub-al-Khali crossing was a hardship the more vunerable did not withstand. The babies and young children suffered from dehydration, their mothers’ milk could no longer relieve them. Little Waled had witnessed this slow descent into hell. Hidden behind a tent, he had caught a few snatches of conversation from the elders’ council. His father had participated, he was proud of it. Admittedly, he didn’t have the stature of a sheik and even less of a sovereign but he was a descendant of the long line of the Beni Yas tribe and for that he was respected by all.

In spite of his young age, the boy sensed the anxious tone of this spur-of- the-moment meeting. The British protectorate brought them but scarce support. The unimpressive annuities and the fishing taxes paid to the most privileged then scattered among clan members were not enough to

 

straighten the dangerous slope they were relentlessly sliding down. What would become of them? Challenge the nomad way of life that had been theirs for centuries? Abandon the Bedouin tradition that had forged their identity and that they enjoyed boasting of?

They belonged to that category of free men that only the desert can make. They traveled unrestrainedly to the heart of the Arabic peninsula; pitched their tents where they desired; breathed in the air saturated with adventure. The sedentary life seemed dismal and insignificant to them. Indeed, they benefited from the essential commodities that local peasants sold in their souks. They didn’t frown upon using the commercial zones to sell their handcrafts and exchange them for some indispensable daily needs. But from there to imprison oneself in a fixed habitat, never!

Since their distant origin, no limit impeded their will:  they had the full horizon before them, the wide desert sprawls were their territory. The firmament served as a roof, the dunes as makeshift beds, the dromedaries as faithful companions. The beauty of the flamboyant sunsets and the incandescent days offered a natural panorama that far surpassed all the marble palaces. With liberty as a banner, they feared no one. Only the wrath of God held them in deference. That day, in that restricted council, for the first time and in spite of their courage, they had the impression that heaven had abandoned them.

****3****

A muffled and repetitive sound jolted him awake. It was just the ring of a telephone but the deep sleep into which Waled had fallen and the torments that agitated it had the effect of a blast on him. He irritatedly took the call and asked in a savage voice what the caller wanted. A feminine voice, rather intimidated, reminded him that he had an appointment with an American delegation of architects who had come to meet him. The fatigue and the nostalgic thoughts that had occupied his dreams left him with a bitter taste, he regretfully dragged himself out of his deck chair and suddenly felt terribly tired. How long the road traveled since his blessed childhood! What successes and regrets, too. Unenthusiastically, he readjusted his attire and went into the large sitting room. Plates garnished with fruits and savory appetizers already crowned the coffee table.

A decanter filled with an emerald liquid, a lemon and kiwi mix, cooled in an ice bucket. Glasses, flatware,and napkins were elegantly arranged on the buffet. Everything was perfect. The discreet and attentive hotel staff had foreseen the necessary. They know his tastes, anticipated his needs. Such fine and considerate service was a luxury he never grew weary of.

 

His guests arrived, cheerfully boisterous. His British education imposed more reserve but he appreciated the Americans’ spontaneity and their no- nonsense way of getting straight to the point. He shook their hands warmly, had them sit and the discussions commenced. The subject was worthy of his ambition. He had the wish to construct an artificial island with a prestigious building scheme. While speaking, he reviewed the wonders that Dubai had produced since the seventies. Who would have imagined that from this arid sandy soil would arise the tallest skyscrapers in the world of which the Burj Khalifa was the most dazzling symbol?

The city had a unique charm. Modern, attractive, enticing, extravagant but traditional as well. Such as a vibrantly sensuous dancer, it sweeps away its visitors in a whirl of pleasures and discoveries : the marina with restaurants and boutiques one after the other ; Palm Island with its three archipelagos born of human will ; the gigantic shopping malls among which the  Dubai Mall was the most impressive with its vast surfaces never reached, its thousands of shops, its over sized aquarium and its dancing fountains.  He began to smile.  His city was made for superlatives., always bigger, always more beautiful. No one thought that this sin of pride deserved even one day of punishment. Those oracles of bad omens were inspired by jealousy. For Waled, the dynamism of this tiny emirate was linked to the prescience of his sovereign, Mohammed ben Al Maktoum.       From the beginning of the 2000’s, the emir had understood that beyond the oil annuities, he had to build a strong state, economically diversified , open to tourism and modernity.

 

Thanks to the engaged reforms, his country was simmering thousands of projects. His would be no less magnificent than those of his fellow citizens, nor less ambitious. A wise business man, he hadn’t put all his pawns on the same chessboard. He lived in London, had property in the United States, investments he made flourish in several European countries, but his fulfillment, his heart lived here, in Dubai where a part of his family still resided, where the desert, so close, echoed in his memory like a call to more authenticity.

****4****

The meeting came to an end. The blueprints unrolled on the long dining room table at the back of the room were refolded. The computers were put away in a disorganized cacophony. The evenining had been fruitful dispite some differences in opinion. Finally, after a few heated debates, they came to an agreement. The project would see light at the beginning of the year.

 

This promise was enough for him. Worn out, he saw his guests to the door of his suite and collapsed on the familiar plum-colored comfortable couch. He wedged the thick silk velvet cushions under the nape of his neck. His hands idly crossed on his chest, he stretched his legs and let his mind wander. The dreams that had assaulted him during his brief nap returned to haunt him.

His youth had flown away a long time ago. The first signs of a declining maturity had appeared surreptitiously. His hectic pace had concealed this reality to him. And yet, how to deny it? The need of eyeglasses, the thinning hair, the stubborn portliness despite the daily gym sessions all carried him to the bank of old age. The denial he was settled in seemed laughable to him. It was time to take stock. Was his life a success? Hard to say but in the eyes of others it was obvious. In his eyes also if it wasn’t for…

His eyelids became heavy. The child he was re-emerged from the fog of his memories. He relived the never-ending dunes that floated like waves toward the Hajar mountain range. He felt the torment of bare feet plunged in burning sand. He remembered with emotion the colored caravans and the women’s dark veils, the dromedaries’ haughty step, the light diffused on the parched ground that the sun at its height transformed into molten lava.

Then, other images came to him like a flash. His father had surprised him at the edge of the tent where the council was gathered. His look severe, his voice dry, then the words that would forge his destiny :

“My son, the tribe is crossing a difficult passage but the sheik’s great goodness will come to us in aid. Among the generous offers, he wants to send one of our sons to receive an education worthy of our blood. I hardly know how to read and write but you, you will become learned. You will obtain the diplomas that will put you on equal footing with the foreigners that occupy our land. Tomorrow, you and your peers will free us from all administrative control. Don’t disappoint us.”

Paralyzed by this announcement that engraved forever his future, Waled knelt before his father and kissed his hand. A few weeks later, laying aside gandourah and keffieh , he had to mold himself into the rigidity of a British academy uniform. He would never talk about the pain of separation, the humiliations inflicted by his classmates who derided his accent. To deceive them he anticipated the taunts, accentuating the wobbly gait of a young teenager little accustomed to western shoes. His feet lamed by blisters bore badly the torture of the ankle-gripping boots.

 

Such souvenirs were disagreeable to him. He quickly chased them away to go back to more positive impressions. His scholastic success, his athletic agility, his horsemanship talents that he benefited from still today, passionately, thanks to a stable in his name, his poetic gifts, his natural curiosity, allowed him to rapidly climb the social ladder. By the time he reached twenty, nothing remained of the frightened little Bedouin.

Brilliant student, benefiting through his family, of the generosity of an emir whose fortune had increased tenfold since the exploitations of oil deposits, he had become an accomplished man. His father could be proud of him, he had abode by the oath that tied him to the tribe. His accomplishments brought honor to his lineage.

****5****

 

In analyzing his path , he overrode his successes. He suspected that his personal qualities would not have sufficed to reach the summits he moved on as of now. This success, he owed to his region.  To those small emirates which knew to reunite and share the god sent hydrocarbons. He felt a passionate admiration for the Sheik Zayed ben Sultan Al Nahyane, whose wisdom and political intelligence in the seventies had obtained the federation of these confetti states to create one nation that counts on the global chessboard.

Yes, his evolution was that of his people. Hunger, thirst, lack of hygiene and education, those terrible miseries of his childhood had disappeared. From then on, the emirate citizens were free from want. If the size of the fortunes varied in function of the social class and each person’s goodwill, everyone enjoyed a protected existence. Too much, perhaps?

Citizen of the world, Waled was not unaware of the precariousness of certain situations , the fragility of wealth acquired too quickly. Oil was not eternal, hence Dubai’s successful diversification. But beyond that?  How do you not lose your soul when money is flowing freely and free reign weakens the body? He thought again of his father who had always refused to take part in the contemporary way of life. Comfort didn’t interest him.

Under family pressure, he had to buy a property on which a house was built for his wife and children. As for him, he slept under a tent, near his animals, and ate, as usual, the strict diet of his ancestors.

At the time, young financial wolf, it bothered Waled to see his father in that unworthy habitat. With age, he realized the importance of Bedouin traditions which were those of his origin. Frugality, respect for elders, tribal solidarity, respect for the faith, so many profound values that were

 

disintegrating under the battering of an excess of modernity. If it were impossible to recreate the past, if the advantages of money were incontestably superior to the misery of the ancient times, the contribution of that people, proud and free, who were part of him, must not be repudiated. His father had bade him farewell on the Abra dock in Khor Dubai, at the foot of the frail watercraft that was to lead him to unknown shores. Six decades had gone by and the last paternal words pursued him forever. “Remember the desert”.

He got up, undid his tie, got out of his western garments. While slipping into a long white gandourah , he opened the wide bay window overlooking the sea. That very evening in the intoxicating heart of Dubai, in the select district of Jumeirah Beach, in spite of the magnificent imperial suite that he appreciated between all, he decided to return to his old lands. Not to settle there but to breath in the scent he missed so much ; to put his bare feet back in the warmth of the sand ;  to sleep under the stars as before wrapped in a wool burnoose ; to awaken at dawn and admire the immensity of these desert lands whose beauty would fill his soul for eternity.