x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Carols in the desert: that’s something to rave about

Carols by Candlelight is an annual event in Abu Dhabi. It is an attempt to inject some Christmas spirit into what for many are not typically festive surroundings.

Dusk had fallen and the view from the crest of the dune was peopled and busy. In the fading light, the isolated desert spot looked like some kind of festival. Groups sat on mats and chairs lit by the flickering glimmer of candles. As we moved within earshot, a familiar melody drifted across the sand: “The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown ...”

Carols by Candlelight is an annual event in Abu Dhabi. It is an attempt to inject some Christmas spirit into what for many are not typically festive surroundings. “Meet at the church at 3pm” were the instructions.

It was Friday and the streets around St Andrew’s Church were thronged with people. Amid the Ethiopians milling around outside the church compound off Airport Road, waiting for their mass to begin, and people heading for afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque, a dozen or so cars were stopped by the roadside with their hazards blinking.

After a few minutes, a white Toyota Prado with posters for the event stuck in the back windows set off and started the cavalcade. Following a blue Volvo estate car down Airport Road, we started singing carols. Astrid joined in with some tuneful murmurs and yelps. It was pleasant.

The usually aggressive and anonymous city traffic had pricks of recognition: a few cars sticking to the slow lane and trying to keep in convoy. We had a piece of paper with instructions – petrol stations, signs and junctions at distances from the church measured on the car’s odometer – but we tried to stay in formation because this caravan into the desert had a fleeting feeling of community.

We drove for about 45 minutes along the road to Al Ain, turned off on to a truck road and then drove down a dirt road alongside some dunes. At least 50 people were already gathered there.

It was interesting how the journey echoed what I consider to be some of the hallmarks of 1990s rave culture: driving to nameless destinations, music powered in makeshift and mobile ways, creating events defined only by people congregated in a place at a particular time. Perhaps the idea of assembling at beautiful spots with music is elemental, as old as civilisation.

We laid out our mat and sat down. Astrid crawled about picking up handfuls of sand. We ate our picnic and watched more and more people arrive. At one point it rained and the shower briefly changed the texture of the desert. Astrid played in the wet sand as if it were snow.

By nightfall, hundreds of people were poised and ready to sing. A woman played keyboard accompaniment and a man strummed along quietly on a guitar. They sat on a brightly lit trailer powered by the purring engine of a four-wheel-drive.

The songs themselves were strangely poignant. Without the usual glut of Christmas songs, which are often played in shops and on radio stations from November, the carols sounded fresh. Pared down and beautifully empty, the desert was an excellent place for Astrid to experience her first Christmas carol service.


Astrid has started making an interesting new sound: it is half machine-gun stutter, half ecstatic cackle. She picked it up from goats during a trip to Ras al Khaimah.

We were walking along the roadside and saw a small herd grazing. I pointed at them and made a bleating sound. You find yourself doing this kind of thing a lot when you have children: seeing animals and blurting out the sounds they make. It is a primitive reenactment, an attempt to convey the world without words.

We walked a bit further and the goats followed. One of them let out a wavering cry and Astrid responded in kind. It was a surprisingly good imitation. Yet the most remarkable thing was not the quality of the mimicry, but the way this sound has entered Astrid’s infant lexicon.

She employs it a lot. It seems to have filled an expressive gap: she uses this utterance for feelings somewhere between happiness and laughter. It is easy to recognise because the sound is so distinctive.

Seeing the process of how a verbal sound is acquired, mapped to an emotion and used is very interesting. It seems so random, as if any sound has the potential to express any emotion, but in truth there is something innate about the process. Astrid knew the right sound; she just had to find it.