UAE: Straws in the wind

At the Ajman Museum (in the UAE), there is on display a traditional architectural design called barjeel, to cool homes and other small places of human occupation. It is essentially a cooling tower, also called a windcatcher, with the room to be cooled at the bottom. At the top, which is open, there is a sail-like suspension of wet cloth that cools and imparts moisture to the descending air. The barjeel at the museum had no wet cloth on top, but even so, the opportunity for air to cool by moving through the column kept the room a few degrees below the ambient temperature, a blistering 39º C.

I was to visit the much more popular Frame in Dubai – a large rectangular structure in which visitors could walk its topmost portion, with views of old and new Dubai on either side. It’s a superficial premise, that the Frame frames the city in two ways, yet it is oblivious of the fact that it frames itself poorly in the process. Among the achievements of the city of Dubai – which have become emblematic of the aspirations of the country’s other emirates – structures like the Frame, the Burj Al Arab or the Palm Islands are tacked on like ornaments to a landscape replete with historical and natural beauty, but which the local government has done little to popularise or celebrate and much to replace with concrete, metal and glass. Even the surrounding desert faces a constant, latent threat of being changed into an artificial forest or receive rain that it doesn’t need.

So it made more sense to visit a place I couldn’t read about online and certainly something that could teach me new things about this strange country. After a protracted argument with my local hosts (who struggled to believe why I wouldn’t want to check out the Frame), someone mentioned the Ajman Museum being not 20 minutes away, and that’s how we got there. And even there, half of the objects and stories on display sang paeans to the country’s modern rulers, delving into their magnanimity with as much detail as was missing from older events in the region’s history.

But the other half was utterly fascinating. Here are just four things I very much liked to know about:

  1. The Umm Al Nar Bronze Age culture in 2600-2000 BC – Wikipedia: “The Umm Al Nar people were important regional trading intermediaries between the ancient civilisations of Sumeria in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Harappan culture. Known to the Sumerians as ‘Magan’, the area was the source of their copper and diorite as well as a trading entrepôt for other goods from the Indus Valley, including carnelian jewellery.” (There is also an important tomb at Umm Al Nar.)
  2. The Umayyad Caliphate – the second caliphate established after the death of Muhammad ibn Abdullah (a.k.a. Prophet Muhammad), lasted from 661 AD to 750 AD and, remarkably, its territory spanned from Toledo in modern-day Spain to Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. In this time, Christians formed the largest denomination in the empire but had to pay a tax for not being Muslims (the Muslims also had to pay a tax but which was used for their welfare). Islam had become the most common religion in the UAE region a little earlier, around 622 AD.
  3. The region in which the UAE lies was settled in recorded history by tribes migrating from Oman in search of freshwater. This was available in the UAE area through groundwater, extracted through tunnels dug into the soil. The Aflaj irrigation system in Oman is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was used to extract and transport groundwater using sloped channels in Oman and the UAE.
  4. The UAE’s emirs had a history of struggling with the British for the authority to rule their people, notably including the General Maritime Treaty of 1820. The region was at various times controlled, or had battles for control, by the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, with the British coming out on top in the late 18th century. The Strait of Hormuz in particular was important to the UK because it was part of trade routes originating from or destined for major Indian ports.

All this from a visit to a single museum in a not-so-wealthy emirate! It’s a sad joke that modernising exercises far outpace those to preserve what the country already has. There are no advertisements or outreach programmes dedicated to archaeological and palaeontological sites in the country, no tours or ‘travel packages’ to popularise the country’s history among tourists. Visitors should ideally receive a booklet of what they could do in the UAE at the airports’ immigration counters, highlighting what they can do in each of the seven emirates.

Indeed, it’s strange that the national government isn’t exactly cohesive, consisting of a ‘supreme council’ composed of the rulers of each emirate, but with emirate being left to its designs. The council elects a president and a vice-president from among its members but historically they have been the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively. These two emirates are also at odds over the former’s proximity to the Saudi Arabian government and the latter’s relatively liberal attitude towards social and religious mores. Sharjah also has conservative tendencies and has, according to some anecdotes, been holding back from flying off the developmental handle like Dubai. Ras Al Khaimah is ‘up and coming’ now, spending money that its ruler (as opposed to its people) has been saving up. Umm Al Quwain still depends not inconsiderably on fishing. ¯(ツ)

The UAE may not have had ‘great civilisations’ like India or China did, yet there is a lot to return to, and I think the country’s insular focus on technological development and utilisation, together with its fractured yet autocratic administration, is gradually erasing this source of identity and pride.

My photos of the barjeel at Ajman Museum: the column (left) has a cloth wall where the concrete wall is currently, upon which the shadows are being cast; the room to be cooled is at the bottom of the column (centre). The panel on the right shows the relative arrangement of the room’s components.
A schematic diagram of a windcatcher at work. Credit: Fred the Oyster/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Every other room in the Ajman Museum, apart from the one housing the barjeel, was fit with an air-conditioner and most of the rooms lacked a motion sensor, keeping the devices running constantly and the chambers frigid. This is quite akin to the UAE’s pervasive technologism: from a sophisticated transport surveillance system to help enforce traffic laws to breathtaking feats of engineering that transcend the country’s natural limitations, it is everywhere in the UAE, and often imposes itself to the point where the country seems eager to exist solely in the future – in the realm of things to come. The entry fee to the Ajman Museum was AED 5 (Rs 108) and the fee at the Dubai Museum was until recently AED 3 (Rs 65); compare this to the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which charges AED 145 (Rs Rs 3,145) for entry, limits the duration of each visit to 30 minutes and showcases scientific and technological advancements that the emirate country expects in future.

(By virtue of keeping the cost of entry so low, the museums are more accessible and whose contents ought to be more popular. Yet the ridiculous logics of privatisation and capitalism – both of which the UAE embraces – prevail: that more expensive things are deemed more desirable.)

It is safe to say that if you take away your awe of engineering accomplishments and of the cumulus of wealth at these places, Dubai in particular and the UAE in general have little variety to offer. And the barjeel is an apt symbol of this state of affairs (with which India must also be familiar): an important piece of the people’s history forgotten and superceded by inefficient, foreign counterparts associated with arbitrary definitions of ‘development’, ultimately reintroduced in highly gentrified fashion – in the ramparts of the bungalows of the rich and in parts of the city inaccessible to those who can already barely afford air-conditioners.