I am on the way to Al Ain to attend the opening of the newly restored Al Jahili Fort when it starts to rain. I know the event will take place in the open air and, thinking of its seemingly miraculous highlight – the presence among the audience of the late Wilfred Thesiger’s travelling companions Salim bin Ghabaisha and Salim bin Kabina, the two teenagers from the Rawashid tribe immortalised in his book Arabian Sands – I suddenly relish what cold and discomfort might come as a tiny taste of the unique spell “this cruel land can cast”.
While the microbus nears its destination, the window frames the crest of a sand dune, fleshing out the fantasy of being in the Sands. A pale yellow mound of immense proportions (though I know it is much smaller than its grand siblings to the south), the dune’s indistinct edge wavers across the gleaming orange disk of the slowly setting sun; and it is as if I am seeing animated colour versions of Thesiger’s striking black-and-white photographs of dune country. The sensation is both cheering and unsettling.
Bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina arrived with Thesiger at Jahili, fresh from the wilderness, in 1949; exhausted by limited supplies and marauding tribesmen, they were graciously received by HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, then the Ruler’s representative in Al Ain, whose hospitality they would never forget. Their admiration for Sheikh Zayed was such that, so many years later – neither bin Ghabaisha nor bin Kabina have birth dates but they must be in their eighties by now – they leapt at the chance to honour the memory and express their love, repeatedly stating that Sheikh Zayed’s virtues are incarnate in his progeny.
When I arrive at the fort, four lush, cafe-au-lait, distinctive looking camels are standing sentinel at the entryway, two on either side of the red carpet; and by asking their minders what breed they are, I manage to confirm my proximity to the Sands: these are Banat Antar, or the Daughters of Antar (as Thesiger points out, only female camels are used for riding in these parts). “He lived 150 years ago,” the man speaks of the animals’ male ancestor, Antar, “and still people identify them by his name. They cost millions, especially those of them used in racing.”
In the twilight, with spare, warm lights glittering at key spots, the space looks magical: dust ground, white crescent against cobalt blue sky, and off-white mud brick in rectangular formation; the circular towers are especially imposing in their sheer austerity of form. But it is bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina who subtly upstage all else: the one squat and bare headed, with a grave expression on his face, his bow-shaped light beard deeply hennaed; the other taller and leaner, wholly affable, with a simple white head dress, a long white beard and a stick in his hand.
Drawn in by bin Kabina’s smile, I join their gathering for as long as I can. “When I walked in Jahili today,” bin Kabina whispers at one point, “I remembered Zayed and the day we came. And I felt just as young as I was then.” But with officials and friends charging ahead in various directions and the two old Bedouin constantly changing position to keep up with them, before too long I have lost sight of the two people I came to see.
Night falls to the sound of drums as the incredibly poised ayala dance is performed outside the gate. Two lines of men face each other – barely moving as they sway in tempo in a manner that recalls the camel’s sedate gait, waving their sticks and chanting in hoarse unison – while the drummers flit in a single, integrated troop from one row to the other, exaggerating the movements of the dancers as they vigourously set the rhythm: a many-bodied, loudly provocative beast.
For hours, while official functions render bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina (in the company of HH Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon now) inaccessible, I dither between the exhibition and the stage, biding my time while I attempt to reconcile the two strong, rough-hewn teenagers in Thesiger’s photographs with these wise old men, as well heeled as they are frail. But as the evening comes to a close I see them leaning on their children’s arms on their way out. I attempt to catch up but I lose sight of them again.
Sighing, I waddle in the wake of the departing audience when suddenly I glimpse the yellow kandura of bin Ghabaisha and realise they have been ambushed near the parking lot. “Zayed is the best ruler,” I hear bin Ghabaisahas saying, “and his children by the will of God are also the way he is. I take pride in this state. The Christian,” he refers to Thesiger, “depended on Zayed. When he went to a place he did not know, he only had to mention Zayed’s name, because who has not heard of Zayed? His generosity, his courage, his knowledge, his horsemanship, his camel riding, his every quality – no one in the entire world,” he says again, “no one surpasses Zayed.”