AL DHAID // When Mubarak bin Salem Danmoush goes shooting in the vast expanse of desert surrounding his home in the village of Bushaar, near this Sharjah oasis town, his concerns and intentions are vastly different from those of his childhood more than 50 years ago, when he learnt to shoot.
"The gun was more important than the sun in the past," he says. "It was a way to defend yourself and it was survival with food." He was given his first weapon, a muzzleloading rifle, by his father, who taught him to use it. He has passed on the skill to his own sons and grandsons. He has no idea how old the weapon is. It was handed down by his father and may have been in the family before that. "We had very good sight," he says. "We had plenty of animals to practise on each day as we were growing up. Our parents depended on us, their strong children, to take care of them."
Back then, weapons were a "part of life". As a child he was dwarfed by his first gun, but if a boy could carry a weapon he was expected to use it. In 1967 he volunteered to join the Trucial Oman Scouts. The security force founded and led by the British was then more than 1,000 strong. Equipped with British rifles, mortars and machine guns, the Scouts relied on the knowledge of the Bedouin who, in addition to combat roles, acted as guides and served as rescue specialists.
At first Mr Salem was turned away because he was too young, but the feisty youth, 16, tried again just months later and was accepted. He served for three years, becoming "a real man" and truly learning to use a weapon. Mr Salem still has a treasured rifle from his youth with intricately carved metalwork and he shows it off with pride. Its shooting days are over - the ammunition is too rare and expensive, for one thing - and the life it symbolises is now a world away.
Today, instead of the long treks through the desert on foot or by camel, the family travels by four-wheel-drive vehicles to and from the simple, air-conditioned homes given to them as part of Sheikh Zayed's national rehousing programme more than 40 years ago. Children then, Mr Salem says, living an active life on a diet dominated by camel milk and dates, were fitter than their counterparts today despite the massive differences in socio-economic circumstances.
"We were real men back then, strong children," he says. Before the widespread use of guns, the desert tribes fought and hunted with traditional weapons, such as bows, swords and daggers, but firearms have occupied a central place in Bedouin culture since at least the 19th century. Within living memory, arms were carried as a matter of course by men from all levels of society. In his 1959 book Arabian Sands, the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, writing about his travels in and around the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950, described his first meeting with the man who was to become the leader of the UAE. Thesiger had made what was then the four-day journey from Abu Dhabi, "a small town of about 2,000 inhabitants", to Buraimi and the home of Sheikh Zayed. He found the sheikh and 30 other men sitting in the shade of a thorn tree outside his fort. Sheikh Zayed "wore a dagger and a cartridge-belt; his rifle lay on the sand beside him."
Many of the old guns now hang on the walls of homes around the country. "It's to show something of their history and heritage and a matter of pride," says Khalifa al Jari, the general secretary of the Dhaid Sports and Social Club. It is not, he says, that the weapons "are worth any great amount of money, because they are still widely available. Perhaps they would be worth Dh1,000 (US$270), but it's not about the money. They represent something of our past."
Today children as young as 15 continue to learn the skills of their forebears at clubs such as Jebel Ali, Caracal in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah Shooting Club. "It's a pastime that fathers often take their sons to," says Mr Salem's son Khalife. "It keeps the tradition alive but within a safe environment, more regulated." Competitive clay shooting is one outlet. In trap shooting, contestants fire 12-gauge shotguns at moving targets from five stations 15 metres behind the trap where the targets are launched. Skeet shooting offers a greater number of shooting angles, with two traps releasing the clay targets alternately or simultaneously.
"In the past we would shoot for hunting and self-defence," Mr Salem says. "Today it's just a hobby. We don't face the same threats any more. We want to keep the tradition alive. The competition festivals, such as the annual Ramadan shooting festival in Shoukah in Ras al Khaimah and the ones at Dhaid club, allow us to maintain it in a positive way, celebrating our past." Many of the members at Dhaid are boys about 15 years old. They shoot mainly indoors, using modern "saktoon" guns, which fire small pellets.
While many children around the world would be terrified by the sound of gunfire, many in the UAE are accustomed to it. "It is very normal for the children to accompany us from a young age while we shoot; they are not afraid. From the age of around five or six we start to make them familiar with the weapons," Mr Salem says. "It's a part of our history and without the young it will soon become forgotten."
The nation's firearms heritage also finds expression at the highest level of international competition. In 2004, Sheikh Ahmed bin Hashar made history in Athens when he won the nation's first Olympic gold medal, in the men's double-trap shooting event. At the same games, Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum bin Rashid represented the UAE in skeet shooting, an event in which he won silver at the 2006 Asian Games. Both men also competed at last year's Beijing Olympics and Sheikh Ahmed is supporting the establishment of shooting academies around the country.
Back in Dhaid, Mubarak's eldest son, Khalife, 32, says his father's stories are like folklore to younger generations. Khalife works in Abu Dhabi during the week, returning to his family's village at the weekend. "The law has changed things here a lot. For me, I love to hear my father's stories. Now we have to protect our natural environment and the local animals, so things have changed in many respects."
There is, he says "no need" for shooting these days because "there is no fighting, no need for self-defence, for security". Nevertheless, the story of the gun is as much a part of UAE history as the camel race. "Shooting is a celebrated tradition nowadays," Khalife says. "You don't need a gun now but it is something we want to preserve and retain as part of our history." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org