The first time I was in Dubai, our hosts were quite upset that due to one member of the team’s oversleeping, our trip to the desert meant we would miss the falcon show.
We did not understand why she was upset, because after all, it was just a bird and Ugandans are not famous for their love for birding. But falcons are one of the most important species in the United Arab Emirates, because of their importance in ancient Bedouin hunting expeditions and are the symbol of the Emirates.
Well-trained falcons can hunt for their masters and deliver their prey alive, to allow their owners to practice full halal rituals of slaughtering the animal. When I recently returned to Dubai courtesy of Emirates Airline, I was pleasantly surprised when we finally found the falcon in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, at a rest stop where we would enjoy a great feast, unique music from the gyrating belly dancer Sumaya, and a camel ride that left me wondering how I had not fallen off the animal as it jerked me forward when it stood up and again as it sat back down.
At the entrance to the rest stop was a falcon and its minder, with the bird looking nothing like the predatory hunter it is famed to be. Wearing a hood that completely covers its head, called an al burqa, the falcon sat on the falconer’s hand, not minding the throngs of people walking past.
“The hood helps keep it calm; if you don’t cover its eyes, it becomes skittish and aggressive,” the falconer told me.
But a close look at its long, powerful and sharp talons shows why this is a revered bird in hunting, and why birding enthusiasts travel thousands of kilometres to this desert destination, just to see this bird species that is presently possibly more pampered than the average human being.
Dubai has a falcon hospital. This is not just another vet service, but a hospital dedicated to top class care for just the country’s falcons. Abu Dhabi also has a specialised falcon hospital, even as Ugandans wait for affordable specialised care for its humans.
Earlier as we drove to the desert conservation reserve, our guide Rom Bautista had also pointed out a couple of specialised hospitals for camels, ensconced between massive camel farms. The Emiratis know what is important to their culture, clearly, and protect that jealously. Falconry and camels hold top spots.
Falcons, for example I learnt, are the only animals in the UAE that can be brought aboard a plane; they also only can travel first class or business class!
A lot of what goes on in Dubai can be over-the-top extravagant, but I also realised we can copy a lot from this desert nation that has defied nature to prosper against all odds.
Looking at their old architecture that they have largely abandoned to tourist sites as they move into opulent mansions and neighbourhoods that have meant a hike in the use of air conditioners (a CNN article says AC use in Dubai accounts for 60 per cent of their electricity usage per capita), I could not help but admire the old technology of wind towers.
This was the Emiratis’ natural way of cooling down their houses in the brutal desert heat, before the cranes, LED walls and skyscrapers arrived. The wind towers on each home were an effective rudimentary technology that meant the houses kept cool during the day and locked in warmth for the chilly nights associated with deserts.
Clearly, the construction and technological explosion in present-day Dubai has not come without cost; not only have the Emiratis had to open up their country to so many foreign cultures and practices, but the impact on their natural resources is also tremendous.
Bautista said a litre of water costs more than a litre of petrol in Dubai; no wonder, a lot of waste water is recycled and treated, to pump back into their vast water-dependent projects such as the famous Dubai Fountain and the inner city irrigation schemes meant to keep the city blooming with flowers most of the year.
And now as the city gears up for World Expo 2020, some exhibitors are putting emphasis on how to rework local methods, such as the wind towers as opposed to depending on AC everywhere. That made me think about Uganda and how much we take for granted; only a few households care to harvest rainwater, preferring to let the run-off damage roads and houses downhill.
Or how we are increasingly becoming dependent on air conditioners too, instead of building better-aerated buildings that would cut down on energy costs.
HOW DUBAI CLINGS ON
Dubai is presently inhabited by more foreigners than local Emiratis; so much so that pointing out an actual Dubai native can be part of the tourism experience. However, the guides warn you not to look the Emirati women in the eyes should you chance upon them, or take photos without their consent.
If you want to see an authentic Dubai native, you may have to hang out late in the evening, when they prefer to shop and make comparisons of their fancy cars. So, while you may not see many of them during the day, you can tell a native Emirati from the strength of their car engine when they roar past on their way to a coffee shop or the malls after the millions of immigrant workers have retired for the day.
But this does not mean the Emirati culture is at risk in any way. They have taken great care to safeguard their values and culture through a carefully-orchestrated marriage system.
According to Bautista, while an Emirati man is allowed four wives in accordance with Islamic marriage guidelines, there are additional incentives for marrying a pure Emirati wife first.
“A man can marry from any country he desires, as long as the first wife is Emirati,” Bautista said.
This is to preserve their genes and traditions. While no one forces a man’s hand in marriage, the incentives are hard to turn down for a young man. A pure Emirati for wife number one comes with a gift of 70,000 dirhams (about Shs 84m) from the government of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
The young man also gets a four-bedroom house (that is the minimum housing standard for Dubai natives) and other perks for being committed to his genealogy. Thereafter, he can marry three other wives in accordance with Islam from wherever his heart leads.
“Here it is very strict that the wives be treated exactly the same way; and should a man decide to divorce one of the wives, he pays alimony for as long as she lives,” Bautista said.
Again I thought about my Uganda, where in a few decades it may be quite hard to locate any ‘unadulterated’ genes for any grouping of peoples.
We call it diversification and globalisation; to the Emiratis, it is a matter of preservation. The way things are moving there, if there were no checks and balances even in what happens in private lives, there would be no real natives in years to come.
NO TURNING BACK
Dubai is a country that still baffles me by how far removed it is from what it used to be. No wonder I pulled out my camera and snapped away at a cart in Al Seef Dubai (this is a neighbourhood structured to give tourists a glimpse of the natives’ pre-modernity life), bearing kerosene lanterns like we still use here, and kalai pans just like the one your rolex guy uses to make your chips.
In Dubai, they are museum-worthy antique pieces that not more than 30 years ago worked perfectly in homesteads. Now they have been replaced by best technology lamps and lighting.
Gone are the pearl-diving and hunter Emiratis; in their place is the Bugatti-cruising wealthy native who now only practices falconry as a sport and whose wife wears the most authentic, expensive pearls money can buy.
If I were to point out one thing I did not like about Dubai, it would certainly be the unfriendly officials at the customs and immigrations booths at the airport. So detached and cold are they that when I arrived at Entebbe International Airport and the immigrations official beamed at me: “Welcome back home!
I almost jumped over the counter to give him a hug. Maybe that is something Dubai could learn from Uganda…