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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barefoot in the Desert

The early morning knock at the door came hard and furious. 

It was barely five a.m. after a night that that went into the wee small hours and included a wonderful Arabic meal, great conversation, star-gazing, and a scorpion sighting. It was time to get to the desert.

This is the weekly Friday morning ritual at Art Hub Liwa, where I have been fortunate enough to be selected as the ‘Writer in Residence” for the International Historical Memory Festival – an art event taking place throughout the month of October with more than ten artists from around the globe (Iran, Italy, UK, Thailand, Australia and more) exploring the history of the UAE and the Transformation Era through their works of art.

But I digress.  

One thing you need to know about me is that early mornings are not my thing (and that sound you just heard? That's the yowl of agreement from my husband). But this was one of those moments where I remind myself that there will be plenty of time to rest when I’m dead. Or that the early bird gets the worm. Or at least fresh coffee… or something.

Here I was in Liwa, with a chance to walk in the desert at sunrise thanks to Mr. Ahmed, the owner of Art Hub, and moreover, an Emirati gentleman who is affable, generous and eager to share his country and culture with all its visitors.

One by one, we emerged from our rooms set in a campus quad meets oasis setting that is the Art Hub Liwa facility, quietly took that fresh Arabic coffee offered, and piled into Mr. A's Land Cruiser. When one last straggler managed to emerge from their slumber, we raced against the sunrise to the point where Liwa Oasis fades into the foothills of the largest sand desert in the world – the Empty Quarter.  

While I had been to a desert before – Death Valley, the Sonoran Desert of Baja and Arizona, and even Moreeb Dune down the road and the red sands of Al Ain, this was the first time I actually WALKED in the desert rather than view it from the air-conditioned coolness of a car, rushing by at 50 mph or dune-bashing with quick stops to jump out for requisite photo-ops.

This time, we were communing with the place.

Mr. A led our early morning walk, instructing us to kick-off our footwear and go barefoot. To the east we could see the first break of light, while to the west, the moon began to sink behind the horizon.

Walking barefoot along the dunes gave me a whole different perspective. You see, the desert isn’t hard. It’s soft. My first step was taken gingerly (worried about glass shards and dangerous desert critters emerging from the sand). But the sand was pristine, cool and silky underfoot. And through this we walked nearly a mile with the sand giving way and at the same time standing firm with each step.

Early morning shadow play
Depending on the wind, the atmosphere, and probably a thousand other factors I haven’t even thought of, in the early morning hours in the Empty Quarter there is almost a dance – of color, light and shadow – as the sun rises the desert moves, moment by moment – and suddenly you realize that those peaks and dips are actually waves. They have motion. They are in constant flow.

Desert 'Waves"

It’s with this flow that you come to realize that the desert is alive. I mean vibrantly so. Up close walking in the dunes you’ll see the tracks of a gazelle, the slither marks of a snake, the scampering footprints of a gecko and tufts of green from desert plants bursting and flowering from the dunes. 

It’s hard to put the camera down on a walk like this. There’s just no comparison. I’ve been to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), and while I admit that it rained on the morning that we trekked out in the pre-dawn to capture the red sunrise that’s promised in all the Australian travel brochures, nothing comes close to seeing a desert sunrise in the Rub’ al Khali.

Into the Empty Quarter
As we walked, I felt like I was in a half dream state. Mr. A led us up to the top a large dune. And there, just over the ‘ledge’ was a stunning valley, full of desert shrubs and flowers, along with a bright and beautiful red kilim set atop the dune with a gorgeous breakfast spread.

We sat down and had our meal, quietly in awe as we looked over the deep valley full of green, thinking of the past people who lived here. Seeing it up close, its life and luster, I could see why people have made a place like this – with all its exterior harshness and secret softness -- their home. 

Sheikh Zayed Sulṭân Âl Nahyân once said, “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”

In a way, Liwa represents one of the geographic hearts of Emirati history and culture. Over that weekend, I learned about the Liwa oasis, about the water that was once just five meters below the sand’s surface, and of how the Bedu lived and thrived in the region. Even though it was harsh, the desert was good to them, the harshness protected them. To them the desert was soft, at times cool and colorful, and always full of life.

Art Hub Liwa is beginning to offer weekend retreats at their compound at the edge of the Empty Quarter. Here’s an article about the Art Hub Liwa festival I’m currently participating in, and details on the overnight desert experience available. If you have the chance (and don’t mind getting up before dawn), it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences not to be missed in the UAE.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Happy Camel of Liwa

This gorgeous one-humped, white wonder lives out on the Art Hub farm in Liwa. A farm that has several rescued salukis, a few desert farm cats, a couple of horses, an ATV, a swimming pool and one gigantic sand dune.

This ain't no mirage, just camel at an oasis within an oasis...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On My Bookshelf: Mother Without a Mask

Recently I read MOTHER WITHOUT A MASK, a book about the early days here in the UAE (which can be picked up at many book shops or supermarkets in Abu Dhabi). It was written by Patricia Holton, a woman who came from New York (just like me), married a Brit (just like me) and somehow, through the confluence of passion, work and fate, ended up being deeply connected to an Emerati family during the 1970s and 80s in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

It’s a phenomenal read if you want to understand the Emerati people and culture as she goes into her experiences with this family as well as traditions, stories and wonderful and compassionate explanations about the Emerati people (and people of the Arabian Gulf). For instance, why women wear burkhas, why sometimes important information is only offered up on an 'as needed' basis (a great insight into how business negotiations are done) and what an Emerati wedding extravaganza looks like. 

Holton also spent her time in the UAE during the time of transformation, and she writes about the changes to the place and people with a wistful preciseness. Reading it gave me a real sense of just how quickly things have changed here in the past forty years.

One passage in particular really called to me. In it, the author is visiting an area in Oman with her Emerati ‘son’ and another family friend and is overwhelmed by the experience... by how distant it is from her other life:

“What was I doing there? How did I get there? How did it all happen? There I was sitting on a wall with a young Arab Sheikh and an old Omani villager, sitting on the wall of an open mosque under date palms growing out of the cleft of a mountain a thousand miles away from nowhere. Ten thousand miles away from home. What was that song? That American folk song? Ten thousand miles away from home? I was living it out.

Was I the same person who had once sat wreathed in her grandfather’s cigar smoke listening to talks of the Indians? Was I the same person who stood watching white clouds scud over a blue New England sky…? Was I the same person who lay disobediently in the dolphin net of a schooner watching the green Long Island Sound cut under the bows?

Where was that child? Absorbed? Forgotten? How did she grow older and find herself here? Strange. Strange. What was the touchstone of my life? How was the pattern weaving? Towards what end?”

Some writers (including myself) write and write and write until the story reveals itself. But sometimes the story is real life. For Holton, when the invitation came to host two young Emerati ‘royals’ in her London home one summer and then accepted an invitation to have the hospitality returned with an invitation to visit the son’s family in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, a whole new life story began to reveal itself.

I doubt she has gotten rich off this book (and she goes to great lengths to protect the family she spent time with), but what she has left is legendary. Young Emeratis look to this book as almost a history of the UAE’s transformation era and of earlier times.  And until recently it was the only book written by a UAE expat (though technically, she is probably best described as a former frequent VIP visitor).  

Tonight I find myself sitting in the ‘camp’ at Art Hub Liwa (I’m a writer in residence for the International Historical Memory Festival), watching the sun play on the sand dunes where a large scale art work of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan shines. There is comfort and community here. But there is also isolation, heat and ants nipping at my feet. Just out of view is the massive and massively gorgeous Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali). And suddenly I feel so minuscule, like the time I was in a plane flying 35,000 feet high over Japan looking down at waves washing along the Island’s shoreline trying not to freak out at being so high, so far away and so completely out of control.

It's times like this that I think about Patricia Holton (she’s become my hero of the moment). With a series of ‘yes’ decisions, she saw a new and exciting world begin to unfold to her little by little and suddenly a new chapter in her life revealed itself and became immense.  

I love that she realized in the moment that this was something different, and special, and wrote about it. And she had those scary ‘what the hell am I doing here' moments and wrote about those, too. Instead of feeling alone, when I read that passage I feel like I'm actually okay, and it's normal to feel this way. Afterall, we’re all in it together out here in what I lovingly call ‘the sandpit.’

Monday, October 6, 2014

September Update

As a freelancer, September has always been a tough month for me. For most others, I suspect September feels like a return from summer vacations and back to school, where the relaxed vibe of summer dissipates into an enthusiasm to get back to business and get things done. For a freelancer though, there can be a lag. New projects don’t usually trickle in until well past Labor Day (if at all), and if you work alone this can feel like being the last kid waiting to be picked up on the last day of sleep away camp.

While work for me is ‘optional’ here, there is a strong part of me that isn’t quite ready to fully live a life of leisure (I don’t need to work.. but it would be GREAT if I did). It’s not that I don’t like (or even love) the social side of things here in Abu Dhabi for myself. It’s easy to embrace the days with rounds of golf, beach outings, coffees, movies and lunches and stuff.

Maybe it’s the case of some good old German heritage work ethic guilts, or maybe it’s because without having children I feel the need to ‘produce’ or continue to contribute to my world in a significant way. But the reality is that I also make a crap housewife… barely cleaning and cooking, and grousing a bit at some of the errands I have to run.

I remember that very moment this September when, with little on the docket and taking steps to begin an all-out job hunt and launch my ‘personal brand’ (yes, I hate the term too), I looked into my closet for something to wear to a coffee gathering, wondering aloud, “What happens next?”

The answer to my question came just hours later. At a coffee morning a woman from a local art institution made an announcement that she was in search of a writer to join an artist’s retreat taking place out in Liwa.

I nearly jumped over tables to get to her.

Then later that day an editor from New York inquired about whether I’d be interested in participating in a press trip for media covering meetings and conventions (my tourism specialty) in Dubai…

With that, I was back in business (personal brand be damned) and I’ve been in a flurry of travel and activity since.

First came the much needed vacation for John to the amazing place that is Musandam Oman that we took (which I will blog about in depth shortly).

John swimming in the crystal blue waters of Oman.
Then came the five day business trip to Dubai, where for the first time in my life I joined a group of travel writers as a member of the press instead of the hosting ‘flack.’ Not only was seeing Dubai from a meeting and convention travel writer’s perspective with lots of great VIP perks amazing, but I also reconnected with some of my favorite industry writer friends. We visited top properties (Burj al Arab) and took in some ‘only here’ experiences – a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifia, a helicopter tour of the city, a private dhow cruise on the Dubai Creek, etc., etc.

Me strutting my press credentials following a helicopter tour of Dubai
After being accepted to the artist retreat, I turned around and packed my bags for the desert. For the month of October, I’ll be commuting out to the desert, interacting with artists from around the world (there are already artists in residence from Iran, Spain, France, Morocco, Italy, UK and Estonia), learning about the Empty Quarter and the UAE’s trans-formative years (1960s and 70s). 

Sunrise in the Empty Quarter with Art Hub artists
We’ll see what transpires on the writing front as a result… it may be a blog recording the artist’s and my experience, or modern re-workings of Arabic fables, maybe a new screenplay, or merely personal essays on my UAE experience – we’re not sure. As the administrators of the festival keep saying, it’s all an experiment. 

So, I’ll keep you posted.