x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Will filling the desert crowd out Arab imagination?

The void represented by the desert in the Arab imagination seems threatened by the plans to fill the Empty Quarter.

Empty promise: a road snakes through the - less and less - Empty Quarter, which is gradually being transformed from desert to destination.
Empty promise: a road snakes through the - less and less - Empty Quarter, which is gradually being transformed from desert to destination.

Does the taming of the sands alter the essence of Arab identity? An elegy for the Empty Quarter.

When, several years ago, the magazine Hijab Fashion launched in Cairo, few registered the anomaly in its name: Hijab - a veil to reduce visibility; and Fashion - the compulsion to stand out. Only the most cynical amalgam of capitalism and Islam seemed capable of delivering that speedball. But what amazed me was the un-ironic enthusiasm with which the target market took the shot. Piety and consumerism evidently mixed so freely you could place their glaring buzzwords side by side and no one would even notice.

Less as a title than a frame of mind, "Desert Destination" - the catch-all term now being coined for a host of tourist developments across the Emirates - strikes me similarly (see From Desert to Destination, The National, April 28). Another incompatible pair of words: barely inhabitable land wedded, improbably, to expensively canned luxury; the quest for the wilderness tightly fenced in by tourism. As is the case with the first pair, one half all but negates the other. Yet aside from Muslim arguments about commodification and literalism, the DD paradox may have more to say to humanity at large.

For settled Arabs as much as their adventurous colonisers (the Oxbridge traveller Wilfred Thesiger, a proud beacon of the British Empire, being the most relevant), ar Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter, where one of the DDs is to be located, denoted not merely a place, but a state of being. It was the desert of the desert, the deepest kernel of identity by which Arabs defined themselves; simultaneously the hell of teeh (loss in quicksand) and the heaven of guiltless origin; the void without which no fullness is possible.

Notwithstanding the mortal peril of actually being there, its lure, the lure of the desert to the power of infinity, kept even non-Arabs like Thesiger busy for entire lifetimes. Perhaps Thesiger's greatest achievement was to communicate a sense of that lure. He says, for example, that local tribesmen never knew this vast desert by its literary name but called it, as he too would in his books, simply the Sands. Only Arabs who were far enough away to romanticise the desolation referred to it as ar Rub' al Khali.

The wryly titled Qasr al Sarab, whose name means Mirage Palace, is rising very tangibly from those Sands as we speak. Five more overblown stars hailing the multinational break-in: once it is complete, both the Empty Quarter and that gung-ho Etonian's endless dunes will disappear forever. All that they mean for Arabs, not to mention Thesiger's white-man fetishes (hardship, courage, purity of race and tongue, dodgy attachment to she-camels) will be reduced to a tourist DD.

Empty, in other words, will no longer be empty; after Qasr al Sarab, even the geographic shape of the Quarter will change. And as one logical conclusion to the post-Enlightenment project to divide up and classify the world, the unknown will become known down to the last U-turn. So ends the other side of the Arab looking glass, the id to the Arab ego, the invisible nexus through which Arab relations extended in defiance of space and time. The empty is filled.

Development in the UAE is radical and frighteningly fast. Much like the old-school colonialist deprived of the opportunity to break new ground, the settled Arab will now be divested of a crucial part of his psyche. No longer will it be possible to think of the Empty Quarter and imagine a nothingness of scalding quicksand. Rather than risking his life for a reunion with a more authentic version of himself, the contemporary Arab who can afford it must take out his credit card and put on a fake explorer hat to learn about falconry.

But perhaps this is unnecessarily negative. Perhaps resort developments in the Empty Quarter will make heritage more accessible. But the notion of a palace in the desert, - mirage or otherwise - is anathema to the very meaning of the Empty Quarter. Here there is no perhaps. Many more thousands of visitors may annually contribute to the UAE's gross GDP, but there is no escaping the enormity of an Empty Quarter no longer empty - increasingly eroded by the agents and implements of a world that can accommodate neither void nor origin; neither heaven, in practice, nor hell.

In the mid-1940s, Thesiger could not have predicted with accuracy what would become of this part of the world. He did, however, have the foresight to realise what his presence among the Rawashid who accompanied him across the Sands might herald for the region. Regardless of his relative assimilation - he spoke their obscure dialect, rode she-camels as they did, drank brackish water and ate sand-baked bread, all the while armed with the requisite khanjar - he knew that just by being there, he changed things. When an ancient, destitute Shahara tribesman approached with the words "I came to see the Christian" - laughing, the dismissive Rawashid insisted he was a madman - Thesiger did not share their amusement.

"I wondered fancifully if he had seen more clearly than they did, had sensed the threat which my presence implied - the approaching disintegration of his society and the destruction of his beliefs. Here especially," the explorer wrote, "it seemed that the evil that comes with change would far outweigh the good." An imperialist's self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps the death of the Empty Quarter was a forgone conclusion even then. Not even Thesiger could have guessed that tourism, not oil, would wield the weapon, though. And yet there is nothing fanciful about any of it. Back in Cairo, Hijab Fashion is still selling well.