The Life of Brien
Brien Holmes (pictured) is an instructor at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), teaching in the Mass Communication department. Most of his classes deal with media (newspapers, magazines, television) which occupied much of his time in the first half of his period in the Gulf (which dates back to 1983).
He has been a member of the Emirates Natural History Group since 1993, has served for many years as the Chair of the Al Ain chapter and he loves to explore the delights of the various emirates.
Brien is one of the many people from different chapters of the ENHG that has given great support to the Fujairah chapter in the establishment phase and he was present at the launch of the Fujairah group this month.
Q&A with Brien
Q. Natural history in Fujairah? How rich is this little emirate in natural history and how distinctive is it when you compare the other emirates?
A. Each of the emirates is rich in natural history and Fujairah probably has no less or no more than any other emirate. But Fujairah does have some natural history elements that do not exist elsewhere. This is something one learns after spending time in the UAE: the emirates are quite dissimilar in many respects, but, as Sheikh Zayed and others realized, they complement one another very well.
We are still learning about natural history elements in each of the emirates, Fujairah included. If you have had an opportunity to read some of the material Christophe [Tourenq] and others produced re Wadi Wurrayah, you know that several news species of flora and fauna were recorded (
Wadi Ham is one of the several systems that linked the east coast of the Oman peninsula with the western edge of the Hajar Mountains and so the history of traffic up and down that wadi is considerable and am sure dates back, as much of the human activity here does, to 7000 years ago or more.
Yes, it is increasingly difficult to find some of the evidence of that use and occupation because, as a major corridor, it is now the location of roads and utility networks. But, for example, individuals have been determined to record and share information on what remains; Michele [Ziolkowski] is finishing up her report on the bridges that the Trucial Oman Scouts built in Wadi Ham, for example, though most of the bridges are now gone.
I also will confess I had to think twice about some sites . . . I am always getting confused whether I am in Fujairah or Oman or Sharjah or Ras al Khaimah or one of the enclaves of one or the other inside an enclave of another!
Q. How significant is the commencement of the ENHG in Fujairah?
A. That is a very difficult question to answer. The short answer is, it is as significant as the volunteers in the chapter choose it to be.
In each of the chapters, to the best of my knowledge, there has been the predictable evolution of the organizations caused, in large part, by the constant coming and going of expats. Like it or not, the ENHG chapters have been populated predominantly by expats from around the world, though there have always been efforts to involve Emiratis.
A measure of significance is how successful the chapter is to involve and educate some populations outside the chapter. This is, as you can imagine, one of the dilemmas each chapter deals with. Is the organization there to deliver program to the paid-up members or is there an obligation -- clearly the opportunity exists. Is there an obligation or duty -- to share what the members know with other constituencies? And that is a two-way street. Even if the chapter is anxious to engage others, the others have to be receptive. If the outside groups are anxious to be involved, nothing is done if the chapter chooses to share its efforts with members only.
As you may know, each of the chapters, while I was Chair in Al Ain, had quite different ideas about this sort of thing. Inside the Al Ain chapter, we on the Committee did not always agree on this either. But it is, I believe, the most important measure of the significance of the chapter.
On a more practical level, the existence of the chapter means that those who are interested in the natural history of the UAE and northern Oman will now have an organization to foster joint activities with those who share those interests. Many expats spend a great deal of time in the mountains, the desert, attending local events but do not always know what they are looking at. The ENHG represents an opportunity for individuals to share information . . . goes back to the unofficial motto we always used in Al Ain: to observe, to record, to report. Sharing the information with others has been a corporate responsibility at least for most of my tenure in Al Ain.
Q. From your many years of being part of the ENHG and meeting people from different emirates, what do members get from such a group?
A. Again, the short answer is that people usually get back about as much as they invest. And how open they are to listen and learn.
You know the Arab expression—no two fingers the same. There are no two members the same. Some come with a passion for some aspect of natural history. Some come because they have no idea what to do on the weekend. And everything in between. There are even, if the chapter is fortunate, someone who has some actual expertise in some area of natural history.
I have been a part of the ENHG since 1997 and I have seen individuals come to one or two outings and never appear again. I have seen individuals come because they are alone in a strange country and want to meet friends. I have seen individuals come who suddenly discover a passion for some aspect of natural history and, within a year or two, become expert in that area. The organization can encourage, foster, and support everything from each of the different aspects of natural history through to things like photography, recording of species (flora and fauna), uncovering lost evidence of cultural activity, and so much more. Yes, it does mean the organizers have to be open and accommodating, something that varies from time to time, chapter to chapter.
Bottom line, members gain an appreciation of the country and its people, its history. For me, for example, I have a profound respect for the individuals who built and constructed falaj systems, often 15 or 20 meters underground, delivering water to farms and homes often several kilometers away. Managing that kind of civil engineering several thousand years ago is absolutely amazing for me.
For others it is a more realistic appreciation and understanding of the country and its people, how they have endured invasions, occupation by the Portuguese, treaty relationship with Britain, sudden wealth from the oil industry. Seven thousand years (or more) of history means the place and people are much more complex than we read summarized in a few pages in Lonely Planet booklets.
Q. What would you say to people wondering whether they might join the Fujairah group?
Most of the people I have known in the ENHG over the years have been educators and I like to think they understand the importance of lifelong learning. They would understand why joining the Group would be a good idea, I’m certain.
My tired line has always been: I never worry about privileges of membership as I consider it a privilege to be a member! Corny, yes, but it does summarize my point of view.
I like to think people who make the decision to leave family and friends and come to the UAE have a genuine interest in the adopted home and my experience has been that there is simply no organization that offers the opportunity to learn about the UAE and northern Oman. And the cost is unbeatable . . . there are hotels, am sure, that sell a bottle of water for more than the cost for an individual annual membership!
Q. Got any favourite sites or things you love to visit in Fujairah?
A. Easy answer . . . too many to list. I have some very challenging off-road tracks that I drive in Fujairah that take me deep into the mountains and those moments are priceless. My interest in copper mining and copper smelting means there are dozens of sites.
There is much of Fujairah that I do not know . . . [I] am keen to find time to explore those and happy to share sites with the chapter.
And, as you know, Fujairah holds a special part in my heart after the search conducted for Billy. Am sure you know that story.
Q. And any other wise things you want to say about the commencement of the Fujairah group?
A. The assumption is that I have anything wise to add.
I have reminded David [Edwards] that the Al Ain chapter had a difficult beginning . . . really had two starts but has been going strong ever since.
I think the chapter is most fortunate to have the support of the Crown Prince and Sheikh Abdulla and others in the local community. And you are most fortunate to have the support and cooperation of the administration of the HCT, or at least the men's campus of the HCT. All of those are very significant.
There are some practical things I could pass on but it is probably best to wait until someone from the chapter has a question. Some times we do need to re-invent the wheel to understand why different chapters do things in different ways. Fujairah will learn those lessons, sometimes the hard way. Bumps on the road and all that.
But the benefits for members and the community and the nation far outweigh any disadvantages.
As I was saying to someone last evening [at the Fujairah launch], I cannot count the number of times individuals have written or told me that the best thing about living and working in the UAE was the ENHG. I know you will hear the same thing in a few months.
If you have not filled in a Membership Form (no fees until later in 2012) download your copy at this link and email it to David Edwards: firstname.lastname@example.org
Indicate the topics you would like to hear about at the regular monthly meetings and the places you’d like to visit after downloading the Interest Form at this link. Again please email your completed form to David Edwards: email@example.com
Visit Bithnah on First Field Trip of New Fujairah Natural History Group, FIF, 12 February 2012.
Fujairah Chapter of Emirates Natural History Group is Launched, FIF, 4 February 2012.
Natural History Group Pledges to Show the Real Fujairah, The National.
Emirates Natural History Group—Fujairah Commences 1 February 2012, FIF, 25 January 2012.
Image: Brien Holmes.
More Fujairah news, resources and photographs are posted on the Fujairah in Focus Facebook Page.