The author of this fascinating book on Abu Dhabi is no blow in—blow out social commentator on the Emirates. Jo Tatchell’s early years of growing up in the nation (she is the same age as the UAE) and regular return visits have given her affection for the country and a depth of understanding. Her time away from the UAE has given to her writing objectivity and perspective.
This book is colourful, personal and evocative. Tatchell has a way with words as she recalls as a child, “the shuffling squeak of sandals across the sand” or “watching the women in black, huddled in groups like tight-budded flowers as they made turns through the pandemonium of the souk.”
Residents and observers of the Emirates will appreciate the way Tatchell captures the expatriate life in Abu Dhabi and the UAE—the feeling of being a guest in someone else’s country and the temporary nature of living from one work visa to the next, knowing that one can never gain permanent residence.
Readers wishing to learn more about Arab and Emirati culture will find intriguing statements and stories that will enhance their understanding of UAE nationals. Tatchell writes tantalizingly about such things as the ways of wasta, the lubricating influence of baksheesh, the peculiar blend of English, Arabic and Urdu that one hears in the UAE, the ongoing impact of Sheikh Zayed, the Emirati love of building and the importance of meeting people face to face to get things done.
Writing as a Londoner outside the Emirates enables Tatchell to boldly probe the walls of wealth and point up the underbelly of Abu Dhabi society. The sub-title ‘Behind the scenes’ suggests that this book is an attempt to lift up some rocks and describe some of the life that scurries away from the light. In this vein she writes about:
+ The growing number of European prostitutes that have superseded the earlier dominance of Indian dancing girls and Filipino sex workers
+ The persisting racial inequalities
+ The effort and the money that goes into beautification
+ The lifestyle of the rich that so often do as they please
+ The ample flow of illegal booze in the Emirates
+ The loss of the Arabic language and with it Gulf folklore, traditional stories, songs and medicinal remedies
Journalist Jo Tatchell sets out to chronicle the many changes in the spheres of religion, the role of women, the place of education and the development of Emirati art and culture. She does this through interviewing old identities, distinguished citizens as well as a number of ordinary people she encounters. Her task is made difficult by certain cultural barriers—the way Arabs do not want to hear and bear bad news and the discomfort of locals about going on public record for fear that they will get it wrong or be seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on a particular issue.
When she turns to the archives Tatchell comes up against the lack of public access to information and a press that has not been allowed to write critically about the government and its leaders.
Tatchell’s return to research this book revealed a surprise at the rate of modernization and a disappointment at the loss of that which she deemed to be essentially Emirati or of Abu Dhabi. Rather than venting her anger and turning the book into a tirade about the country’s leaders Tatchell has taken the constructive route of asking important questions like these:
1. What is being Emirati all about?
2. How might the crisis of national identity be addressed?
3. What is the history of the Emirates if it is being refashioned to create a new national identity?
4. If the identity of modern Abu Dhabi is being consciously redefined what role will Islam play?
5. How does one understand the ‘current fad’ of Emirati heritage fade as “the past, is to many [Emiratis], an extraordinary reminder of the struggles, the poverty and their insignificance?”
6. How do planners develop Abu Dhabi with palatial air-conditioned dwellings and modern malls while still retaining the essence and soul of the city?
7. While Emirati women have moved along the spectrum of liberation, will this journey lead to true equality?
The title of this book, A Diamond in the Desert, indicates the positive view of the author and the worth she attributes to Abu Dhabi, past and present. The book is not a final judgement on the Abu Dhabi dream but the author believes that ‘the world’s richest city’ has a responsibility and it is on notice!
This is an important book to read as it is a case study of a city of the east wanting to dominate the west and an Islamic people who are reframing their religious principles for a modern context while earning international praise. Jo Tatchell contends that Abu Dhabi is on a course, not only of erecting structures to inspire wonder but a path of intellectual and culture empire building. Tatchell asks whether the Emirati mindset will be able to change enough to achieve this dream.
Tatchell’s provocative insights and penetrating questions will certainly draw the reader into a dialogue and stimulate rigorous debate.
Jo Tatchell, A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City Black Cat: New York, 2009.
Foreign Companies Needing UAE Partner is One Hell of a Business Model, FIF, 13 December 2010.
Living in the Emirates Insh’Allah, FIF, 9 December 2010.
Stuck in a Velvet Rut in the Emirates? FIF, 2 November 2010.
This article is also posted on the Fujairah in Focus Facebook Page.
Image: Front cover of A Diamond in the Desert.