An oasis of knowledge in the desert

By Bryan D’Souza ’11 / United Arab Emirates

It has always amazed me how people from outside Dubai are eager to travel to that city, while those who live there rarely travel out. Dubai is a hot spot in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), rapidly industrializing and commercializing. Though I grew up in this small, sunny Middle Eastern country, there was so much of it I had yet to discover. Luckily for me a small group of close friends had a similar adventurous spirit, and we would spend weekends exploring the northern deserts of this country we called home.

For most travelers, home is at one of the two endpoints of a trip, but I felt at home trekking cross-country in Dubai searching for the villages of the nomadic Bedouins. My friends and I would hear about the possible location of a village and set out across the amazing scenery of the desert with its contrast of clear blue skies against crimson rock formations to try and find it.

Bedouin villages are not located by GPS maps; there are no convenient roads or signposts leading to them. We would find them by reckoning their location on paper maps, then taking our bearings from the desert’s land- marks of rocks, hills, and valleys. We knew that these villages were usually located near an oasis, the coast, a stream, or larger patch of vegetation—not just anywhere in the middle of the desert. When setting out in our four-wheel-drive trucks, we did not always know our exact destination; we simply allowed our instincts to guide us.

There are Bedouin villages all over the country, and one could drive for hours without seeing anything then cross over a sand dune to see one appear as if out of nowhere. Being nomadic, a Bedouin village consists of a few huts, spaced over a large area, which can be taken down and packed up on camels within hours. A neighboring hut could easily be 500 feet or more away. On one of our weekend explorations we had set out to find a specific village. According to our estimate it was supposed to be about a four-hour drive from Dubai. Almost nine hours later we still had not found it. We were thinking that perhaps the information we had gotten was wrong or the village had packed up and moved on. However, each time one of us brought up the idea of turning back, someone else would say, “Let’s just take a look around the other side of the hill.”

We were just about ready to give up, when we came across a small Bedouin hut that was filling the surrounding air with amazing aromas of coffee. Drawn by the smell, we got out of our cars and decided to see what was brewing.

This small village home looked quite humble from the outside, but had all the necessities of a modern-day home on the inside: stoves, ovens, and even air-conditioning, all powered by a generator.

The value that Bedouins see in such a simple, yet modern, life is that at all times they have their feet on the ground. Bedouins appear in many famous novels and stories, but this small group of people remains rooted in tradition, earning their living in the old ways. They still know what a good life means and how to open their homes to anyone they choose – and they are willing to share their hospitality with many people.

As we approached the hut, the coffee aroma grew much stronger. We knew that even if we were ultimately shooed away from this humble home, we would first be extended the intrinsic cultural hospitality of being offered a sip of the coffee that we smelled. What we experienced, however, went well beyond a simple cup of coffee.

An elderly male Bedouin, wearing the traditional kandura robe, came out to greet us. Though he looked like a farmer, he had a presence that bespoke leadership and a confidence about him that was unmistakable. He was one of the village elders, a nomad, who through his stories, we learned, had also been one of the first soldiers in the UAE army. He had seen the country change from its nomadic tribal origins to the cosmopolitan cities of today. He feared that in its rush to modernize the country was at risk of losing its connection with its history, losing its oral history that had been passed down for generations.

Outsiders rarely understand the vast wealth of knowledge and information that the Bedouin ancestors have left behind. It used to be that the elders were part of the education curriculum. They were the ones who passed on the stories and histories of their cultures to the children. The children were then tested on these stories, just as they were on the other subjects. In us, eager youths who actively sought out people to learn from, the elder saw the opportunity to share some of the long accumulated wisdom of his tribe.

His stories and poems kept us captivated and amazed; it was as though we had found a diamond in the desert. Usually we were a very talkative group, but that night we sat for hours being the listeners, not the talkers.

Although I had spent most of my life growing up in the United Arab Emirates, that night I realized just how much there was about this country that I had not heard or learned yet. He told us about how the seven tribal emirates and their ideologies came together to form the UAE. He and his stories reconnected me with the country’s historical roots, redefined my perceptions of history, culture, and people, and taught me about human nature.

That day turned out to be one of the most interesting and valuable of my life. Since then, I have sought him out whenever I visit the country. With elegance and refinement he serves me a cup of coffee filled to exactly the same level I drank during the previous visit, and I begin to again become the listener, learning more about the past and the history of the country that I grew up in: the United Arab Emirates.

Bryan D’Souza is a 2011 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management. He was born in Mumbai, India, and raised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He has worked in the Tata Group and founded a private consulting firm. At the time of publication, he was working with Loft9 Consulting in Seattle, Washington, as a senior consultant in strategy and change management.