x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tents in the city keep UAE’s bedouin heritage alive

The luxury-tent business, and all the trimmings, has boomed in the past two years with the expansion of Al Gharbia. But when does a structure stop being a tent and become a building?

Mubarak Al Qusaili and family, inside their tent. Tent decorum dictates that anyone is welcome at any time, without advance notice. Delores Johnson / The National
Mubarak Al Qusaili and family, inside their tent. Tent decorum dictates that anyone is welcome at any time, without advance notice. Delores Johnson / The National

Nasser Al Qusaili mourns the loss of bedu life. He misses the days when he grazed his camels across the Arabian Peninsula.

His eyes are traced with black eyeliner and his beard is suspiciously black for a man of 67 years. Seated under a chandelier, his gold-coloured phone silent, he plays a plaintive love song on the rebab, a single-string guitar.

Mr Al Qusaili once followed his camels as far north as Kuwait, and most of his days are still spent with his 150 strong herd, including his darling, Al Ashwa, the prize camel in the 1996 Al Gharbia camel beauty contest. In a few weeks, the weather will cool and he will put up a goat-hair tent in the desert.

Until then, he uses a permanent luxury tent outside his house. Such tents are Al Gharbia’s must-have status symbol.

Befitting a man of his status, the tent interior has heavy curtains and plush couches, and is trimmed with golden tassels in a style that could be described as “bedu chic”.

“The tent, it is the link between the past and the present,” says Mr Al Qusaili. “From this tent, you can see everything, the things of the desert, without a door.

“A building has no eyes. In a tent you look here, you look there, you can see far. When you stay in the room with four walls you feel like it is a prison.”

Mr Al Qusaili speaks with nostalgia for the desert life he left when he and other bedu moved to Ghayathi, an unlikely town of green-grass boulevards in the interior of Abu Dhabi’s vast and sparse Al Gharbia region that borders Saudi Arabia and contains the majority of the country’s oil and desert.

It is also the centre of the super-tent market, a growing multimillion dollar business. These are permanent structures built for durability and hospitality, a modern symbol of old values.

Once upon a time, tents offered protection from the cold and howling desert winds. These days, they offer psychological security against the loneliness and disconnection of modernity.

Tent exteriors may be simple cloth or goat-hair structures not unlike those used by bedu such as Mr Al Qusaili for generations. Inside, they make the most of modernity: Czech crystal chandeliers and technology that controls two-metre tall air-conditioning units from a smartphone.

“You can’t put two apples in one hand but you can catch two apples in two hands,” says his nephew, Mubarak Ali. “We live here in the city but we build this tent and we feel like we are still in the desert.”

Modern tents outside villa walls are a Saudi Arabian import from the 1990s that have taken off in the past decade amid increasing interest in cultural heritage and the growth in Al Gharbia’s population, expected to almost treble to 377,800 by 2030.

It is a remnant of a nomadic style, built to last: double-glazed windows, tile flooring, plumbing, electricity and WiFi connected to satellite coverage of camel races. It all suggests the question, when does a structure stop being a tent and become a building?

Builders and users are agreed: function, not form, makes the tent.

The tents are important meeting places for a population that is still transient. Men commute hundreds of kilometres to work in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

“This is very important for us to build a good relation between our relatives and our neighbours,” says Mr Ali, 45, who plans to build his own tent across the street. “We have a recommendation from our religion to take care of neighbours, of our parents. So this is our role, our commitment.”

Steel structure tents are made to be open, built with glass windows that give full view of the roads. “Because in the desert there is nothing closed,” he said. “Everything is open.”

This is figurative as well as literal. Tent decorum dictates that anyone is welcome at any time, without advance notice.

“In a modern house it’s different,” says Mr Al Qusaili. “You have to call before you come to the house and say, ‘Hello? are you there?’ So it’s against our tradition. In our tradition in the desert the guest can come in your house any time, day or night.”

About 30 men appear at his tent each evening after issa prayers. Talk ranges from the date harvest to local schools, political discussion and religious debate.

An open tent indicates both the willingness and the wealth to serve guests. UAE tents are the pinnacle of bling. “It is like a hotel,” says Mr Ali.

Even so, it is no substitute for the “incomparable” desert life, says his uncle. “When you stay here there’s no view, there’s no camels when you go here and there so it’s not a happy thing for me. When I stay there in the desert I see more of a view, I see my camels here and there, so I feel like a bird.”

“The main reason to come from the desert to the modern city is the school for the boys and the girls. It is not an easy thing but this is the government intent and it is the right way and the good way.”

The luxury-tent business has boomed in the past two years with the expansion of Al Gharbia. In May, the Executive Council allocated Dh1.5 billion in infrastructure projects. At the same time, the Western Region Development Council offered 3.9 million square feet of free land to developers to boost commercial and residential development.

The reversal of the region’s population decline has meant millions for tent companies.

“Every time when you get a new building 100 per cent locals they need tents,” says Mustafa Harajli, a senior sales representative for Beit Al Noukhada, one of the region’s leading tent companies, which introduced the modern tent in 2003.

“They used to go for traditional,” said Mr Harajli. “Traditional doesn’t serve them with their needs.”

If you can dream it, they can do it. Two-metre diameter chandeliers, Persian carpets from Iran (“Not Chinese, Chinese carpets they didn’t succeed until now”) and synthetic “industrial strength goat hair” from Australia. “Because, you know, the smell is very important to people here,” said Mr Harajli. “Goat hair smells. We give them tradition without this smell.”

The company, founded in 1997, creates new models every year for its four lines: Classic, VIP, Super VIP and Royal.

The Royal Tent includes Andalusian woodwork interiors and soundproofed double glazing. The air conditioning of permanent goat-hair tents is much needed because they were traditionally only for winter use.

“You know, people like fantasy,” said Mr Harajli. “All possibilities able to be done. there is nothing unacceptable or impossible. They have got used to electricity, they have got used to water. They say, ‘If everything is there, why shouldn’t we use it?’ ”

One-room tents average 40 square metres for up to 25 people, and cost up to Dh650 per square metre, exclusive of the furnishings and electronics often provided by tent companies.

The super tent is not at odds with tradition but a continuation of it. The bedu make the most of what they have.

“The ancient people they looked forward all the time,” said Mr Harajli.

Super tents can be found in the suburbs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but city zoning makes tent construction a different matter altogether.

Eid Al Mazrouei has the only super tent on the island of Abu Dhabi. His Saudi Arabian goat-hair tent was erected outside his Delma Street mansion for National Day more than three years ago.

“We liked it, so we kept it,” says Mr Al Mazrouei, a former teacher and Federal National Council member. “I now have this tent based between the buildings of civilisation. Now around this building are more costly buildings but this tent is more valuable than these houses because when you come inside you are feeling the past life.

“We prefer to sit in a majlis here to inside the house. It’s simple, easy access to the people.”

He proudly boasts that everyone from police officers to members of running clubs has walked off the street to him join for coffee and tea. To bid them welcome, Mr Al Mazrouei orders daily deliveries of half-ripe dates and camel milk from his farm in Al Ain.

There are no half measures. Even the sand was imported from Al Ain. “Using sand that is not from the desert would be like using words you don’t mean,” said Mr Al Mazrouei.

“I am a teacher and I need to teach this civilisation to other people. Sheikh Zayed, he raised the people from the tent to the city, directly. He gave them the power of money and free housing, free farms and that helped the people to start life quickly.”

Yet Mr Al Mazrouei never lived the life of a Liwa bedu. He went to Qatar by camel with his family at the age of 4 and at 10 he moved from a palm-frond house to a concrete building. He returned to Abu Dhabi to work for the government.

“Bas, in the modern life it’s different,” he said. “Concrete in the room. You cannot see the sun, cannot see the moon.”

azacharias@thenational.ae