Monday, 1 September 2014

Book Review: Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities In The Emirates


"Dubai has nothing. No culture, no history, no character. It has no heart, no spirit, no traditions... It's not a real city, it's just a mirage, all spin and no substance, a city built on sand."

This book starts on that statement and then sets out to prove it wrong. Its triumph is that it does just that and it's a read anyone setting out to explore the Emirates will enjoy.

David Millar lived and worked in the UAE and decided to write a book about the place. He's by no means the only one, we have a small but growing coterie of books left behind by expats like animal spoor, from Desperate Dubai Diaries through to Glittering City Wonders.

I usually avoid these books on the grounds they will almost invariably irritate me. I've spent the past 26-odd years travelling to and living in the Emirates and I've seen enough of it with my own eyes to know I'm not particularly interested in seeing it through someone else's. Having said which, Jim Krane's Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City is the Dubai book.

David's taken a different tack, however. Unlike so many commentators on the Emirates, he's decided that below the surface - the half inch of champagne - is a more interesting place to be. Employing the charming little conceit that his visiting girlfriend, Freya, is mulling whether to come to the UAE to join him but won't live somewhere without history, David looks beneath the vavavoom and wawawoo of Dubai and explores the history of the place in a series of road trips. We go up to the East Coast, taking in Fujeirah, Kalba, Northern Oman and the Wadi Bih track; we snake around the fjords of Kasab and the concrete-crushing sprawl of Ras Al Khaimah and we generally do Al Ain, the Rub Al Khali, the Liwa crescent and, finally, Sir Bani Yas.

Each of the book's destinations is treated as a trip to the modern location but the object of the excursion is to unearth its history, the lost cities of the UAE. And David, clearly relishing his subject, mixes observations of the modern and ancient aplenty.

Let me be honest. I fully expected to hate the whole thing. There were times when I felt the discomfort of someone else's view of the place I live in. Having yourself discovered a thing, it's hard to feel a vicarious thrill on behalf of someone else discovering a thing. This is why running up to me and babbling excitedly that whales have belly buttons cutteth not the mustard. Reading Beyond Dubai, I had to fight quite a bit to stop being a dog in the manger all the time and yet - once I'd settled down - I found myself enjoying the journey. Given I have lived here for donkey's, spent quite a lot of time working as a features writer (and so been paid to unearth stuff and write about it) and generally made something of a habit of travelling around and poking things to see if they squeak, there was much in the book I already knew or had experienced myself. Having said that, I've taken a damn sight longer to do it than it takes to read a book: David's efforts have by no means been in vain.

This is a book that will appeal hugely to expats in the UAE or holiday makers interested in going beyond the beaches and taking a look at the rich heritage and culture the country has to offer. If you think that very statement sounds odd, then you need to buy this book. Beyond Dubai is a well written book, a light read that makes its subject accessible and enjoyable. It's sort of Bill Bryson meets Leonard Woolley.

From Jumeirah to Umm Al Qawain's millenia-old city of Tell Abraq, from RAK's lost Julphar and Ibn Majid the famous navigator (whose art eclipsed that of the Europeans whose navies were only then beginning to explore the world systematically while the Arabs had long mastered the arts of astronomy and navigation), Beyond Dubai takes us to the Emirates behind the new roads and skyscrapers and often does so with wit and charm. Brio, even.

Don't get me wrong - I has my quibbles, I does. For a start the big plane parked up in Umm Al Qawain's airstrip isn't a 'bomber', it's an IL76 - a commercial freighter. It hasn't been there since the fifties, either - it was landed in the nineties. I didn't like the reference to the Jumeirah Mosque as the only one in Dubai that welcomes 'infidels', but then that's just me. Jazirat Al Hamra was not abandoned because its inhabitants were lured to Abu Dhabi's oil industry, they fell out with the ruler of RAK and Sheikh Zayed offered them resettlement. Wahhabis are Sunnis, so you can't be 'Wahhabi rather than Sunni'. The drive through Wadi Bih is glorious, majestic and great fun, I'm not sure quite why he makes such a fuss about how hard and precipitous a mission it was. It was always a pleasant day trip and a doddle of a drive (it's closed now, tragically). Strangely, for a couple so interested in finding the history of the place, David and Freya don't visit the many museums strewn around the Emirates. There's no mention of the megalithic tomb or fort at Bitnah, a vital ancient trade route through the mountains to the East Coast (originally the only passage through the mountains) and, indeed, a number of other sites. And so on.

But you get the point here - I'm caviling because I Think I Know Better and that sucks as an attitude when reading a book like this. And yes, I accept that Mr ITIKB is likely just fooling himself much of, if not all of, the time. The point is, anyone with less 'I was here when it was all sand' issues and an interest in the wider UAE will enjoy this book and I reckon will profit greatly from it. And yes, I learned things from this book, so I'm not quite as omniscient as I'd like to think.

If you've just arrived in the Emirates, want to live or holiday there or want to scratch around below the surface a little, Beyond Dubai will give you much pleasure.

I was provided a copy of the book by the author (whom I do not know personally and who approached me seeking a review). You can buy your own copy right here and if you've got a Kindle, you'll only be parting with £2.95!

1 comment:

Manas Sahu said...

I'm curious to know what you think -- do the figures in the article add up or is it smooth sailing for the foreseeable future?

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