x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Tales of the city

Jo Tatchell's new book examines Abu Dhabi's evolution by engaging with the author's own past.

Jo Tatchell's new book looks at the changing face of Abu Dhabi by chronicling her early years in the emirate.
Jo Tatchell's new book looks at the changing face of Abu Dhabi by chronicling her early years in the emirate.

To a visitor to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, its rows of towers gleaming against the Gulf, or to the Emirates Palace by night, bathed in its shifting rainbow lights, the UAE's capital must seem as jewel-like as any city on Earth. Jo Tatchell, the author of a new memoir-cum-history titled A Diamond in the Desert, remembers it a different way. She arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1974, the three-year-old daughter of the British manager of Spinneys. In those days, she writes, "the desert still had the upper hand". All the same, "an almost palpable sense of chaos and opportunity hung about the place. It was like California's Sierra Nevada in the days of the gold rush". This is racy, evocative stuff, and one can only assume Tatchell must have been an observant child: she was just 10 when she went back to England to start boarding school, though she continued to visit the region throughout the next decade as her parents moved around the Gulf.

It was after she had finished university that she began her second long stint in Abu Dhabi. Lured by "clear skies, fun and the promise of my first job", she started work as the subscriptions manager at the Marina Club. The work was varied and the living easy but she couldn't stand it for long. "It wasn't that I hadn't enjoyed myself there," she writes; "far from it. I had spent some of the happiest moments of my life in Abu Dhabi." But she "always ended up feeling guilty at taking advantage of a system in which people were valued differently, by race as well as profession". Tatchell ended up going back to London, where she took a typing course and carved out a niche for herself as a freelance journalist writing about the Middle East. Abu Dhabi never left her, though; it had "bewitched a part of me", she writes.

In a sense, her new book is an attempt to tease out the ambiguities of her relationship with the city. In doing so, it provides a condensed history of the Emirates and a snapshot of Abu Dhabi today, when, as she says, the people of the UAE "are only just beginning to address the question of who they are". "For all the physical construction and development that's been under way in some way or another for the last 30 to 40 years," Tatchell tells me from a temporary bolthole in Wales, "there's now a kind of parallel cultural aim. And that's a new threshold... It felt like it was the right time now to say something."

Abu Dhabi has been a changeable place for as long has she has known it. Her book includes a telling story in which her father crashed his boat into the newly created Lulu island; cursing, he admits that he'd forgotten it was there. Yet the process of transformation has, in Tatchell's view, become more self-aware in recent years. "This time the change feels very strategic," she says. "After Zayed died and the plans for the future became more clear, I realised that actually my own experience, both in the Seventies and also in the Nineties, was probably going to be like ancient history. And that actually I needed to come back and see it."

That return trip forms the central narrative thread, the present-tense action, in her book. In a sense it's a detective story, albeit one in which all the evidence is packed away in a possibly mythical depot while the sleuth is bounced from functionary to functionary without ever approaching her goal. Tatchell's efforts to gain entry to a national clippings archive becomes an organising motif amid a sea of more miscellaneous impressions and reminiscences, her frustrated researches broken by reunions and interviews. It's an effective device, one that allows her to range over the history of the region while discreetly checking the nation's pulse.

As far as that goes, Tatchell finds evidence of several disorders. The two great bugbears are a lack of transparency and equality, and harrowing anecdotes from the family archive are brought out to buttress the bleaker diagnoses: stories of abductions hushed up and fatal accidents swept under the carpet. "The Abu Dhabi I once knew was a secretive place," she writes. "Plenty happened, but you never heard about it - at least, not through the media or official channels." Fortunately, she isn't too proud to pass on the rumours. And there's a luridness to some of this material which, if it does little to increase the moral authority of her case, at least makes for an exciting read.

Some of her quoted dialogue has a certain down-market zest, too: "Damn this place, but I love it," one of her old friends announces: "It's for dreamers and people stupid enough to be seduced." These Jackie Collins interludes are a welcome distraction. For the most part the tone is careful. Tatchell is meticulous in attending to the subtleties of Abu Dhabi's historical context, and she offers, in the end, a guardedly optimistic prognosis. "There is an intention," she tells me, "to create or allow a more just, more even-handed system to come through - a more representative system." It would, she believes, be reasonable to reserve judgement for a decade - "possibly a little less or a little more" - before writing off the great experiment that is life in the Emirates. "We don't have a utopian society on Earth yet," she says. Abu Dhabi is a young place. It should be allowed, as she calls it, "a grace period".

Besides, there are signs that intellectual as well as architectural developments may be afoot. The thing that sparked her return to Abu Dhabi was the announcement of the Guggenheim for Saadiyat Island. She notes the extraordinary expansion in university uptake, and the fact that Abu Dhabi has achieved one of the highest percentages of female graduates in the world. "Now it's not just the physical planning that's being thought through," she says. "It's the cultural planning and the meaning and identity of the city... In those first few years people were just busy being and doing, and making changes like setting up businesses and learning about them. With more time, I suppose, comes reflection. And you begin to ask the question: what do you want to be?"

This is not a decision that Abu Dhabi is free to make in a vacuum, however. "It's in a sensitive geographical place," Tatchell says. "It may have intentions, but it has so many relationships that it must uphold, whether they're trade relationships or relationships related to geography or faith... all those layers make it possibly more of a challenge than in a lot of other places." But there are reasons for optimism.

"The things that are possibly the most unpalatable," Tatchell tells me, "the aspects that threaten to derail the sense of achievement and future intention, could easily be addressed. Because you have a country that's rich... it has funds to implement changes, and it's also small, which means it could in theory mobilise that change really quickly." The rewards would be great. Abu Dhabi is, Tatchell suggests, poised to take its place at the world's top table. "The question is, how much does it want to be a part of a kind of global world?" she says. "Where is the axis of its power? Is it just among its own people, or is it more about creating a place for itself in a wider world?"

I ask Tatchell what stake she personally has in Abu Dhabi's future. She did, after all, grow up here. "I would not say I was invested," she answers hesitantly. "I have no formal role. But I do understand that it is a small country and it's making a place for itself, and it has had to tread a path of necessity, and now it's trying to carve out something that's longer-term... It's on a journey, and you can't judge the end by the beginning." Still, if you want to know more about how that beginning began, Tatchell's book is a good place to start.