Hospitality on the Way to the Liwa - The United Arab Emirates' Desert Garden
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Desert! What do you mean? Our country a desert land? Make a trip to the Liwa and see how our nation has been turned into a world of greenery!” Jassim, my Emirate friend appeared to be upset when I mentioned that the United Arab Emirates is a land of unchangeable desert.
Of course, I should have known better. More than once I had travelled to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, and seen with my own eyes how a once mud town built in the sand had been transformed into a breathtaking modern ultra-urban centre. Flowering gardens and parks, towering skyscrapers and wide-clean streets, edged by majestic date palms now totally covered the landscape. Yet, even though I had been captivated by this fairyland city, rising like a phoenix out of the sands, I had not dreamt that this transformation extended to the four corners of the land.
My friend’s words gave me the needed persuasion to see with my own eyes this greenification of the desert. Soon thereafter, I rented an auto and, with my wife and daughter, set out westward on our way to the Liwa, edging the Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter) – the ‘desert of deserts’.
The four-lane highway, edging the Arabian Gulf, traversed a flat desert landscape, in many places white with salt. However, bordering the road on both sides, the land had been built up and topped with soil transported from long distance. In this, trees, mostly date palms, had been planted, nourished by a plastic-pipe continual water sprinkling system, enriched by
fertilizer. The older planted sections were flourishing, but much appeared to be newly planted. “Imagine! In a few years when all these trees are fully grown, we will not be able to see the desert.” my daughter pointed to the mile after mile of young palms.
At Tarif, 130 km (75 mi) west of Abu Dhabi, we turned southward and in less than 20 minutes we came to the oil fields at Hasban. Past this petroleum oasis, here and there, patches of trees intersected with fields of grain were encompassed by the surrounding desert. Just before reaching Madinat Zayed, the trees, dominated by the date palm, increased to block out the desert.
Near mid-morning, two hours after leaving Abu Dhabi, we stopped in this desert city at the Al-Nafurah, a restaurant which appeared to be newly opened. While sipping our Turkish coffee, after relishing our manaqeesh bi za’atar (thyme pies), Muhammad, one of the restaurant owners who hailed from Daraa in southern Syria, handed us a pamphlet about his roadside eating place.
Soon we were discussing the food of the modern UAE – a cuisine of the many nationalities who call the country home. Noticing on the pamphlet that his restaurant served Lebanese food, I asked, “Why do you call your dishes Lebanese? You’re from Syria. Isn’t it also Syrian food?” Muhammad smiled, “The people here call all Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian dishes Lebanese.”
The educated people of the Arab Middle East have an inferiority complex when it comes to the West in its culture. Since the Lebanese are considered to be the most westernized, Lebanese food and entertainment have become synonymous with the best in Arab dishes, dance, music and song.
However, the other Arabs of the Middle East, especially the Syrians, have better kept their Arab virtues. When we came to pay Muhammad refused to take any money saying, “You have honoured us with your visit. How can I take money from guests who have travelled here from North America – thousands of miles away?”
As had happened to us twice in the UAE, when we dined in Syrian eating places, I had to talk Muhammad into taking the few dirhams for our snacks. Arab generosity and hospitality were still alive and well in the Arabian Peninsula, especially among the Syrian expatriates who, as a rule, according to many travelers, still practice these virtues in their homeland.
After Madinat Zayed, the greenification seemed to stretch further and further into the desert. Dozens of bulldozers were levelling the sands, preparing them for the spreading of the top soil and the installation of one of the most modern sprinkling systems in the world. On this prepared land, along the roadside, trees and shrubs are planted and beyond, the prepared land is distributed free to farmers.
A little over a 100 km (61 mi) from Tarif, we were in Mizaira, one of the main towns in the Liwa – a string of natural and man-made oases on the edge of the fearsome Empty Quarter with its ocean of dunes. Turning eastward, we drove in the direction of Hameem 64 km (40 mi) away.
It was a pleasure to drive on the recently built smooth four-lane highway which followed valleys, green with flourishing fields of cabbage, cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, cereal and forests – many newly planted. In the midst this deep-greenery were greenhouses, experimental farms and vegetable fields, partially covered with plastic sheeting. It was apparent that the most modern of agriculture technology was being applied to a once lifeless land, reincarnating the landscape to what it was 10,000 years ago when the Arabian Peninsula was a tropical jungle.
Only the barren hills reminded one that this was once part of the dreaded Arabian desert. However, on the top of some of these were newly built glimmering white villages and schools overlooking the ever-expanding lush farms below. It was a scene from the20th century rather than a profile from the ageless desert.
Encompassing these hills and fields are the sand dunes – some a 100 m (328 ft) high. Tourists come on desert safaris to ski or ride these mountains of sand or just to enjoy their panorama of breathtaking colours, especially in the early morning or at sunset.
At Hameem, the highway ended abruptly. Beyond, to the south was Saudi Arabia’s Rub al-Khali – a land so barren that for millennia conquering armies had avoided entering its sands. Nevertheless, today, even though the battle has been fierce between man and desert, the modern agricultural armies, in their encounter with the dunes, have tamed some of these sands – a testimony to what modern technology can achieve if employed wisely.
Retracing our steps until Madinat Zayed, we relaxed for awhile in its well-manicured park before continuing homeward – reaching Abu Dhabi in the early evening. Our return journey of some 630 km (391 mi) had been a satisfying experience. As we entered our hotel, my daughter summed it all up, “I can’t believe how the desert has been transformed and how friendly and generous are its people. It is like magic! A dead world has come alive.”