“Tomorrow morning, I will show you Liwa through my eyes”, says Ahmed Ateeq Al Muheirbi, concluding a conversation of tourist attractions in this southwestern region of Abu Dhabi emirate. Most “foreigners” who come to Liwa, do so for its desert attractions, its massive dunes that reach hundreds of meters in height, the Tal Moreb festival, the Liwa Desert Challenge and the Liwa Dates Festival or simply to take a fairytale-like break in the magnificent Qasr Al Sarab resort, built 10 kilometres deep inside the desert. There is little, if any, encounter with local folk.
Ahmed may have businesses and properties in both Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, but Liwa is where his heart lies. Like his father and grandfather before him, he grew up among the mighty dunes and palm tree oases of Mazeirah, the main “madhar” (village) of Liwa. Nowadays, he spends every weekend and holiday he can spare in Mazeirah, between his and his mother’s farms. In the cooler winter months he often brings his family over to enjoy camp fires, barbecues and rewind the old days with stories uttered long into the starry nights.
As promised, the following morning, at 9 AM sharp, Ahmed pulled over in front of Liwa Hotel, where I was staying, towering over Mazeirah atop a 150 meters sandy hill. From here, he points to the oases down in the valley.
“They all belong to Al Muheirbi and Al Qubaisi families, who have been living here, in Mazeirah, for hundreds of years. In the old days, there were no fences, no private palm tree farms. The palm trees belonged to everyone in the community and we all used to work the oases together and share the dates,” says Ahmed.
Al Muheirbi and Al Qubaisi tribes branch off the Bani Yas, a federation of about 20 tribes, the largest and most powerful of Arabia of present day United Arab Emirates. The ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum, are part of the Bani Yas tribe. This was also one of the most highly regarded tribes of southern Arabia. Its origin can be traced back to Yas Bin Amer, whose tribe came from the pre Islamic tribe of Nizar bin Mayid bin Adnan.
Partly because of its numerical superiority, but mainly because of its military prowess and proven loyalty to allies, many other tribes sought to join the Bani Yas for protection and security. One of its largest subdivisions, the Bu Fallah tribe, was, and still is, one of the main tribes inhabiting Liwa. In fact, until about a century ago, Liwa Oasis was known as the Bu Fallah desert.
From the main street, Ahmed turned into truck, unpaved roads, as we began our tour with a visit to his farm. Some free roaming chickens were the first to greet us, but Ahmed pointed to the dug out trenches and concrete structures behind them.
“I’m going to build a vet clinic for farm animals. There isn’t one around here. People will be able to bring their sheep and goats for medical checkups, but also for baths and sheering. The water from the bath will be recycled through this pipe here and reused for irrigation,” explains Ahmed.
He inherited the farm from his father, who passed away a few years ago, and he plans to completely modernise it. The concrete structures will house his 15 cows, sheltering them from the extreme summer heat. The sheep and goats will also get new “homes” and there may even be a bigger pond for the ducks and geese. Beyond the animal farm, a well kept palm tree orchard spreads for a few acres. It’s a peaceful, idyllic spot and Ahmed took advantage of it to built a rest house for his family to spend beautiful winter nights.
Nearby, we stopped by his cousin’s farm, Saleh Al Mansouri. It is a special farm, as Saleh is one of the few farmers in Liwa to introduce the water and soil saving hydroponic system for his farm. Not only he grows vegetables in this soil-less, nutrients-enriched, recycled water, but he is the only farmer in the country to grow palm trees using the hydroponics.
“And he did it all by himself. He is an engineer and he built the entire system with his own hands,” points out Ahmed.
Unfortunately, Saleh is not home. He had an urgent business and couldn’t meet us, so we just had a glimpse at his farm from the main entrance and drove away. Next stop, was the castle of Mazeirah.
Not quite as impressive and dominant as the castles of Saxon, Welsh or French lands, but a fortress nonetheless, Qasr Al Mazeirah is hidden among the farm lands of the village. It is believed to had been built sometime in the 1940s, and back then it would had been the tallest building around. Like all forts and houses in the region, the Mazeirah castle too was built out of mud, straw and palm tree wood. The square shaped fort has two levels and four towers, used in the old days to watch out for any potential invaders. A land rich in ground water and abundant in date palm tree plantations, Liwa Oasis was often on the menu of foreign Bedouin tribes, who would draw swords to conquer its richness.
Some 220 kilometres southwest of Abu Dhabi island, Liwa Oasis is a 100 kilometres long crescent-shaped oasis, one of the largest in the Arabian Peninsula. It was the last settlement on the northern edge of the 650,000 kilometres dune field, which, due to its vastness, harsh climate and forbidding environment, became known as the Rub Al Khali, the Empty Quarter desert. The size of France, Belgium and Netherlands combined, this is the largest continuous sand expansion in the world. It is filled with huge “irq” (vein) dunes that are up to 150 kilometres long, horned barchan dunes with sharp crests that reach steep, up to 700 meters heights and wall like, nearly vertical “zibar” dunes that fence off the “sabkha”, the long and frequent salt flat corridors.
The Bedouins tapped underground freshwater resources to cultivate dates, and, as a result, forty villages appeared in Liwa before the 16th century. However, with the rise of the pearl industry, Liwa lost its significance as the economic focal point of the region, and the leading family of the Bani Yas, the Bu Falah (Al Nahyan family), moved to Abu Dhabi during the early 1790s.
Yet the plantations of Liwa Oasis remained significant to the Bani Yas tribes, and throughout the centuries several forts and towers were built in Liwa’s villages to protect water sources and mark the lands of different families. Since the towers and forts of Liwa Oasis are usually privately owned or built on farms, which are still cultivated even to this day, visiting them require prior permission.
Today, there are 52 mahader (villages) dotted along the crescent, Mazeirah being pretty much in the middle. The villages of Liwa Oasis are the southernmost settlements of Abu Dhabi emirate and of the United Arab Emirates. The southern border of Abu Dhabi with Saudi Arabia, which runs at a distance between 16 and 35 kilometres to the Oasis, is a straight line in the Rub Al Khali desert, which is largely uninhabited. Mahdar Bin `Usayyan is the southernmost village of the Emirates, and also the easternmost of the Oasis.Right up to the discovery of oil in the 1950s, most of Liwa’s men used to leave their homes in the desert during summer months and head off to the coast to do other work in Abu Dhabi, on the shores or even venture deeper into the sea for pearl diving. Besides hunting, their staple diet was basically dates and camel milk. A goat or a camel would only be sacrificed for special occasions or important visitors.
The homes were built from mud and palm trees, while goat and camel hair was used to make tents that served as majlis or for sleeping when traveling. Most people preferred goat hair for the tents because it made them cooler. It is in the nature of goat fur that when it is woven the small gaps allow nice ventilation, and when it rains it shrinks, preventing rainwater from leaking through the roof.
To this day goat and camel hair is spun and woven into large majlis tents that nearly every house or farm in Liwa Oasis and beyond has for receiving friends and family, gathering particularly on winter nights to share news, stories, poetry and food. When it comes to outdoors and camping equipment, though, tents included, Ahmed is the man who has it all.
Not only he is in charge of the family farm and runs a construction business, but he is also the owner of Liwa Oasis Picnic, one of the biggest and best known camping shops in the country, with several shops in Liwa and Abu Dhabi. And this is where we headed next.
“They are going to build a new road that will link this back street with the main road,” says Ahmed.
“When that happens, I will open a new shop here. It will be much bigger and it will sell all manner of gear and products that people need for camping and travelling through the desert or the wadis”.
This main branch of Liwa Oasis Picnic is located on the back streets of Saniya, the industrial area of Liwa, some 15 kilometres from Moreb dune, where hundreds of people gather every December for the Tal Moreb festival, camping here for a couple of weeks. The small shop sells anything from pop up tents, barbecues and portable showers to off roading gear. The back door, though, opens to a large warehouse that one day will become a camping department store.
“Every year I bring products that are new on the market. For this season, I brought these water bottles that easily fit into any backpack or even pockets. What is special about them is that they turn any water, no matter how muddy or murky, into pure, tasty, perfectly potable water. If you walk through a wadi, for example, and fill this bottle with brown water coming from a rain pool, you’ll have crystal clear, drinkable water in seconds. It even turns coca cola into water. And you don’t have to do a thing; just fill the bottle and wait for a few seconds,” explains Ahmed.
We returned to Liwa’s main road, which curves around every dune and headed back toward Mazeirah. On the way, he points to the Liwa Rest House.
“It is closed now. It was built by the sheikh, who wanted to give something nice to its people. It had separate swimming pools for men and women, and the kids used to love it. As children we’d always come here to enjoy the pools and the gardens,” says Ahmed.
A little bit further up the road, he turns into another side, unpaved road, driving through the open gates of a farm house and stopping at the entrance.
“The arbab (boss) is home?” he asks the two Pakistani workers near the gate.
“Yes, he is over there,” comes the answer, accompanied by a head movement pointing the direction.
The “arbab” is no relative of Ahmed, but they both share the same name: Ahmed Ateeq Al Muheirbi. This Ahmed is as passionate about palm trees, as he is about history and fish. Behind his beautiful outdoors majlis, flanked by a row of large cages, home to cheerful canaries, is Ahmed’s novelty business: fish ponds.
“I built all of this myself. I have about 20 fish pools with all sorts of fish varieties, even Gold Fish, for aquariums. I went to the sea and I caught hamour and other fish and brought it here,” he explains as we walk through the ponds.
“I sell mostly to local folk. When they hear about it, people are always amazed: ‘fish in the desert?’ Some asked me how I did it and try to build their own fish farm,” smiles Ahmed.
Back past the open-air majlis, we enter his enclosed guest-receiving room, which Ahmed has transformed into a personal history museum. Trophies, artefacts, weapons, old photos, pottery, Bedouin jewellery and ancient radios are among hundreds of objects he collected from an era long gone.
“This is my father,” he says, pointing to a photo showing a portrait of three young men.
“It was taken in the 1970s, during a pearl diving expedition. Pearl diving stopped in the 1950s, after the discovery of oil, but this expedition was organised by a sheikh from Dubai and it was exactly like in the old days. People used traditional wooden boats, a rope and stone tied to the leg to freedive fast, a nose clip to hold the breath and a basket around the neck to collect oysters”.
He offers tea and, no doubt, endlessly fascinating stories would have followed, but the clock was about to strike noon, a time that has always been, and still remains to this day in these Bedouin villages, reserved for lunch with the family.