A Walk Into History

[Sharjah is the Emirate next door to Dubai. The year was 2002)

The Gulf lay off to the northwest, a scattering of high cloud above.  The sun would set in about an hour.  Unimpeded by the clouds, the sun drained the color from all I could see as I looked toward the Gulf.  Like photographic negatives, indistinct outlines were all that separated the land from the sea.  Everything appeared white-hot, seconds from being removed from a smith’s forge.  A flock of pigeons whirled nearby, lending some perspective to the blanched characterless scene.   As the sun moved lower, a minaret slowly took shape and the two-story villas began to recover their color and depth and shade.

On my walk from our flat in Sharjah, I passed through a run-down commercial strip and into a residential area of older villas, some of which had chicken and goat pens outside their six or seven-foot walls. The villas were laid out in a rectangular grid and were separated from each other by ill-defined sandy alleyways and streets.  Each villa identified itself with an elaborate gate of carved or inlaid design. 

Leaving the villas behind, I walked next to a small bay, separated from the Gulf by a narrow inlet with rock sea walls on both sides.  The bay and inlet also separated Sharjah from Dubai.   It was an excellent harbor but at present only provided anchorage for a few small fishing boats and two aging motor launches.  On the beach lay the carcasses of two fishing dhows.                                        

I turned right and headed toward the Gulf.  Separating me from the Gulf were the tumbled-down remains of an abandoned fishing village.  Now, under the glaring sun and removed from the traffic, the only noise came from my shoes sifting through the sand.  Suddenly, I was taken back to a long-ago time when the rhythm of life was dictated by the catching and processing of fish.  Sifting through the rubble of the old houses, I felt like an intruder.  Inside the walls of one house were the blackened branches of a long-dead tree. I imagined it being part of a green and pleasing courtyard, providing a fisherman and his family with welcome shade.

The deserted village also boasted a citadel of sorts.  What was its purpose?  Circular in shape, it stood perhaps twenty-five tall with lookout windows at the very top.  Inside, it was empty with not even a flight of stairs or a ladder leading to the lookout.   Perhaps, this was an early warning system against invaders.  Hard to imagine it helped with fishing. 

What it did suggest was the vitality at one time of this gathering of dilapidated homes, a place worth defending.    Why was it abandoned?  It was certainly a more scenic spot compared to much of Sharjah.  Had some sheikh ordered everyone away?  The sadness I felt was similar to that felt back in Alberta when passing through an abandoned farm site, the smell of failure always lingering in the air.  Was trying to eke out of living from 160 acres of semi-fertile land any different from trying to wrest a living from the sea after centuries of fishermen had been drawing on its bounty?

I continued my walk on the beach, which stretched for roughly a kilometer.  Since leaving the commercial street, I had not encountered any signs of life beyond the pigeons..   Sadly, the beach was littered with garbage.     

Suddenly, the sound of a motor drowned out the gently lapping waves.  I turned just in time to see a young Arab man roar past me on a motor bike, his dishdash flying in the wind.   Interrupting my reverie of long-ago times, his presence was slightly incongruous with the ancient clothing and modern travel device. I was jolted back into the 21st century.  A small taste of cultural shock. The sun was sinking, turning an angry vivid orange-red as if resenting being sent over the horizon. It was time to return home.

Robert Alan Davidson, 2002

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