x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Listen to desert, water and history - listen to the old men

Their knowledge and heritage is dying with them. Luckily these practices are being documented and archived, but they are no longer living parts of the culture.

With great difficulty, I kept trying to catch up with the old man. But in his flip-flops, he made it to the top of the mountain faster than I did in my sturdy hiking boots. The 89-year-old member of an Emirati mountain tribe wanted to show me a carving on a stone that he believed told the story of his ancestors. Sweating, swearing and feeling embarrassed at my lack of agility in front of this tiny old man, I finally made it to the site after a 10-kilometre hike.

There, on a grey brown stone, just below my knee, was the faded stick figure of a man holding what looked like a walking stick. Standing next to it with a smile, the old man supported himself on his own worn wooden stick and introduced his ancestor. "That's me, but a version that is thousands of years old," he said. Another old man I have met in the course of my job, also in his 80s, makes a point to check the stars at night and the direction of the wind. He goes into the desert and likes to dip his feet into the sand and rub his hands with leaves broken off desert plants.

He does this to stay in touch with nature and to "communicate" with it. He is one of the last original weathermen of the desert, who in the past would notify his tribe of any sudden changes to their environment and weather. "Nature is always trying to talk to us, but no one bothers to listen," the weatherman told me. He gave me a small sack with fine desert sand in it, telling me to keep it in my home so my connection to the desert remains alive.

A third old man taught me to look at life in a different way. He had lost most of his own sight, but as an Omani tribesman with expertise in irrigation, he struggled to show me which types of mountain rocks signaled the presence of abundant water. "I can sense a water source, it just feels different when you are near it," the old man told me. His wife guided his hand gently to the right rocks; I think to help to keep his pride in his trade in front of a young reporter. This couple, who both must be in their 70s, have lived through a difficult life in the time before oil changed the region.

Yet the only marks from that past are scars on their hands and deep wrinkles on their brows. Their hearts and spirits clearly remain young. I have been fortunate to meet people who perhaps are the "last" of their kind, men who have kept alive traditions and knowledge passed down to them from ancestors that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I grew up on bedtime stories that began with an old wise man on top of a mountain, or under a bridge, or simply wandering the plains with some kind of a walking stick. So imagine my delight in meeting members of some of the oldest Arabian tribes.

A lot of these men have passed away, or soon will, and their knowledge and heritage is dying with them. Luckily these practices are being documented and archived, but they are no longer living parts of the culture. No one will know about them unless they read a book, which of course is not the same. I have met the children of all these old sages. They may know some things about their heritage and their fathers' trades, bits and pieces, but they don't feel passionate in the same way. Stories will be passed down, and like all stories, eventually they will be modified and some details lost, until they become folklore instead of reality.

In my own family, we had an old man of the sea, called the "hero among heroes" in the time of the pirates and mighty sea adventures. There is a glorified portrait of him in one of our family homes in Lebanon, and while I doubt he looked the same, the 50-year-old portrait captures his spirit, showing him on small boat in a raging sea. Like all old men in stories, he is said to have been wise and tricked a group of greedy pirates. Even if the story has been romanticised, at least there is a portrait to keep his memory alive. Sadly, there will be no similar record of some of the old men whom I have been lucky enough to meet.