x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A desert reminder

A small pot of sand serves as a reminder of all the places there are yet to go.

An exhibition has just opened at The JamJar, an art gallery in Dubai, that offered an open-call to residents to show-and-tell 100 objects relevant to their time in the UAE.

It's a great idea - one that worked well when it debuted last year - and its timing with National Day is also perfect, as it shows a very day-to-day side to this place. Some are personal, others more irreverent.

But I missed the call. A trinket that says a little something about my experience of this place isn't in there. But if I had put something in, it would definitely be an innocuous little copper pot that someone gave me only a fortnight into my time here.

Said friend, long since departed from the UAE and us having drifted from regular contact, had just come back from the Empty Quarter, the Rub' Al Khali desert that stretches from Liwa all the way to Yemen, east Oman and into Saudi. Somewhere along this weekend safari, she'd bought an unremarkable, very touristy 3ins-high pot made of lacklustre metal and, amid the limitless dunes, filled it with smoky red sand for me.

I was, without exaggeration, over the moon: as someone then as now enamoured with the more raw, more adventurous history of this part of the world, this simple little gift was like a postcard to all the things that I knew were out there but as yet felt so distant.

The ubiquity of chain restaurants, a very British workplace and the general chaos of trying to find a place to stay combined with the adjustment factor that goes with any big move made this desert seem out of reach. So when I did finally get sorted, the little pot came with and occasionally, I'd pour a bit out and have a look at the sand against the white of my cheap Ikea desk. Sounds odd, I know, but there was something a bit magical about those red grains.

It wasn't until I finally did my own jaunt into that great ocean of sand that I touched for myself some of its magic and the experience has stayed with me.

I've moved house eight times in three-and-a-half years. Despite this exodus around the city, the pot has never been lost. There's nothing else - be that things or friends - from my time here that's stuck around that long.

But the reserve of sand is starting to dwindle. So I think it's time for a trip back to the desert.

When my family first came out to see me here, one of them remarked - having last seen Dubai firsthand in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pre-Metro, pre-Burj Khalifa, pre-Marina: "You don't know the imagination that it must have took for all this. Back then there was literally nothing."

For all its quirks, this place has risen mirage-like from the sands in less than a lifetime. That's what a jaunt to the desert reminds you of. It's the perfect fix for topping up the reserve.