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It's Thursday morning: the weekend is on!  You worked very hard this week, and you've been waiting for today to get away from the city and its noise.  But where to go?  You've visited almost all the wadis and nearby deserts, such as Al Aweer and the "big red" near Hatta, and now you're running out of ideas.  You call your best friends, and they suggest going somewhere special; further away than you'd expect, but guaranteed to be a really interesting experience.  "Let's go to Liwa!", they say.  You've never heard of this desert before, but you agree.

The next step: you and your family get busy, preparing the sandwiches, food, drinks and camping gear.  You quickly go through your list: all in order, all on board and off we go!  The drive is long (about 350 kilometers from Dubai), but when you arrive you instantly forget those hours behind the wheel and say, "Wow! What a place!"  Who wouldn't be fascinated by this unique desert.  You deflate your tires and agree which driver will lead.  After an exciting afternoon of 'dune bashing' you arrive at your campsite and pitch your tents for the night.

These days you go well-equipped and are well-supplied for the weekend trip.  But think what you would have done to survive if you had lived in this desert a few hundred years ago.

Liwa is the name of a vast, almost barren desert region, that extends from the southern part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, all the way to the border with Saudi Arabia; and south of Al Ain, all the way to the border of Saudi Arabia and Oman (at the village of Um Azumool, the most southerly village in the UAE).  In the past, Liwa was a lot larger than today, and it was also known as the Bu Fallah desert.  This name came from the Bu Fallah tribe, which was, and still is, the largest tribe in the area.

When I met with Mohamed Bin Zayed Bin Khalfan Al Jadeed Al Mansouri, an old man well-known for preserving the history of the region, he told me that all the other tribes came from the Bu Fallah and Bani Yas tribes, such as Al Nahyan, Al Manaseer, Al Mazaree, Al Hawamel, Al Qubesi and many others; except Al Mansoori and Al Amiri.

Here, it is worth mentioning a very important point: a lot of people think that Liwa lies in the "empty quarter".  This is not true.  Liwa actually lies at its edge.

"Life in the past, before the oil exploration, was not easy at all," says Mohamed Al Mansoori.  "Our life was very basic and we only had what we needed - no extras, no luxury; but do not think that it wasn't nice; despite the harsh environment we had a happy and joyful life."

There used to be around 50 permanent settlements, known locally as "Mahdar" for one, and "Mahader" for more than one; with names such as Muzairah, Al Mariyah, Shah, Nafeer, Hameem, Arada, Therwaneeyah, Malqata, Bateen and so on.  When Mohamed Al Mansoori said, "Let's name them all," he took his prayer beads and started counting and naming them one by one, and in the right order.  He did not miss out a single one, and told me he has been to all of them in the past.  These well-established Mahader each had plenty of water wells and farms.

Liwa was not on the trading route as some people may tell you.  Very simply, it was a region inhabited by a lot of Bedouin tribes, because it was rich in water resources and not too far from Abu Dhabi and the Al Ain Oasis - a landmark well-known for its commercial trade and as a stop-over for the travelling caravans coming from Oman.

"We used to get some caravans and people coming from Abu Dhabi, but trading was done on a small scale, or like an exchange of favours," said Mohamed.  "Say, for example, you've come from Abu Dhabi and have a lot of blankets; you will give me one, and in return I will give you food or something else you need.  It's not a barter system; only helping each other."

"In the wintertime, most of us used to leave our homes in the desert and head off to do other work in Abu Dhabi, on the shores or even venture deeper into the sea for pearl diving,"  said Mohamed.  "For example, I used to have two dhows that I used for pearl diving.  Each dhow could take up to 30 people.  My friends and people from my neighborhood would ask if they could come with me that season.  I would never decline their offer.  In those days we did not have a salary system; whoever came on board would be provided with food, and the money would come from how lucky we were - how much pearl we got and the market price.  Once I'd sold the harvest, each man got his share for the effort he contributed.  Thanks to God the sea was generous, and everyone returned home very happy and satisfied."

Mohamed continued, "Some did not go diving, and preferred to stay close to the shore and practice fishing.  Some would go as far as Al Ain Oasis, seeking jobs in the trade business.  From the money we made, we used to buy food supplies such as rice, spices, and household items, and bring them back.  Our return period started with the date season, because once we returned, the palm trees needed to be looked after to get sweet dates."

"Travelling in the past was a job that required a lot of planning," said Mohamed.  "The camels were equally well packed and fed very well before the journey.  For example, when we used to go to Al Marfaa, which is around 80 kilometres away, the journey took an average of five days; if we were in a hurry we could make it in three days.  We used to depart after the Fajar prayer (about an hour before sunrise), and travel till 10 in the morning.  We stopped, brewed the coffee, ate a little food, and rested till early afternoon before continuing our journey.  Before setting out the overnight camp, we never took a difficult way; we used the easy routes and planned the trip in a way that when we stopped, there would be water close by and plenty of grazing for our camels.  If there was no water we sometimes had to dig for it.  And when we set up our camp, we used to place few traps in case we got lucky and caught a hare or two for food.  Water used to be very close to the surface, sometimes we only needed to dig five or six meters before finding water.  If it was a full moon some people used to travel at night."

"Going back to our day-to-day living," Mohamed continued, "Hunting in the past was an important activity, and we started teaching our children how to hunt at a very early age.  We hunted because it was a way of obtaining food.  Falcons were used, but not by everybody because they were rare and very expensive.  Only the sheikhs and rich people could afford them.  If you had a falcon, it was used to hunt the Hubara bird and hares. Other people used Solookee dogs for hunting hares, beside rifles, arms and traps. We used to take care of our desert, and it was a well-known rule among every hunter never to shoot a young gazelle (Dhabi).  We shot the old ones and gave the young a chance to breed and produce more."  Today, hunting is prohibited.

"Besides hunting, our staple diet was basically dates and camel milk," he adds.  "Also, in the past, not everyone used to have many camels, and for those who did have a lot, there was no comparison with the number today.  If you had 40 camels, then you were a very rich person."

"Our homes were built from palm trees, and goat and camel hair was used to make our tents," said Mohamed.  "This was a job that was assigned to the women.  The branches of the palm trees were taken away and cleaned, then the leaves were woven together; the branches supported them to make the walls of the house and the foundations were made from the dead palm tree trunks.  Most people preferred goat hair for the tents because it made them cooler.  It is in the nature of goat skins that when they are woven the small gaps allow nice ventilation, and when it rains they shrink, preventing rainwater from leaking through the roof.  The tents were made in a way that we could take them when we travelled."

Mohamed went on to describe other aspects of the past: "Our education system was very basic.  We studied the Holy Quran and Islamic studies only - there were no schools or other forms of education, but our fathers made sure we learnt from their wisdom and judgement."

I asked Mohamed what actions used to be taken if there was a dispute over a matter between two people, and he told me each Mahdar had an old man appointed by the people for his wisdom and knowledge.  His judgment and opinion was taken in solving any problems, but in most cases the two parties used to reach an agreement among themselves.  He said, "The idea and impression that people have in their mind that we Bedouin fight among each other and raid settlements is not true.  Maybe it was true a very, very long time ago, but not during my time, and as far as I know during my grandfather's time.  Of course, if anyone came to harm you or damage your property, you would act in self-defense."

"Each tribe had their own area, which was something agreed on; no physical boundaries, but each man knew the borders," he added.  "A lot of people build a very wrong impression, by believing that if a stranger passed through our area we would have asked him for something - a tent, a camel, and so on - for the time he is planning to spend, and the number of people and camels with his caravan.  This is totally wrong.  If you were a stranger passing through my territory I would have made sure that you were well treated, and I would even have fed you better than what I eat myself, given you my bed, and loaded you up before you continued on your travels.  I would protect you while you were in my area and assist you with all of what I could offer.  In return, if I happen to pass through your area in the future, you should treat me the same way."

I asked Mohamed to tell me about the real "empty quarter", and he said he had been there so many times.  He continued, "The place is not suitable for living at all. Water resources are very limited and the terrain is difficult, but in the past the Bedouin used the empty quarter to graze their camels.  They would only stay a while, and there were no permanent inhabitants.  We always made sure we had water, and on the outskirts of the empty quarter there is water. When we dug for water we got sweet water and salty water.  We used the salty water for the camels and the palm trees, and the sweet water for our personal consumption."

Mohamed has witnessed incredible changes in his lifetime, and concluded his thoughts in reflective mood:  "Civilization approached us in the late 40's, by introducing trucks and jeeps that were brought for the oil exploration.  It did not have a big impact on our lives at that time, but when oil was found and the country started its rapid development, things changed.  Houses were being built everywhere, roads laid out in the middle of the desert, hospitals, schools and so on.  The government and the sheikhs made sure we got everything and more.  Today, as you can see, Liwa has all the modern facilities you get in a big city. But still I can not forget my origins and roots.  Every now and then I go and spend some time in the heart of the desert, and live like the old days."


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