3rd On the Jebel

Lights change colour behind the trickling waterfall. Created to make an impression on both residents and visitors alike, it all looks so manufactured, so artificial. Nearby, a temporary stage is set up and a group of men in traditional clothing are rhythmically performing the Ardah (sword dance) in honour of National Day. Locals and foreign nationals, males and females together, mill about them, some waving flags enthusiastically while cameras flash.

So different to how I remember.

When I was a small boy, I would bring the goats to this jebel. A large hollow had been scooped out on the top by centuries of abrasive winds, and whenever it rained, which was

only a few times each year, a pool would form within its bowl. While my goats would roam the rocky hillside, contentedly munching on the neem and acacia, I would linger by the fresh water, soaking my sand-encrusted feet while whistling along to the breeze as it whirled amongst the adjacent weathered boulders. If I was lucky, I might encounter a foraging desert hedgehog, a jird emerging from its burrow, or a spiny-tailed lizard basking in the sun.

That was before the Americans came.

Oil derricks suddenly erupted out of the local hilltops like pus from my teenage blemishes. Roughly constructed stone buildings popped up almost overnight in the undulating desert between the jebels; freshly-graded dirt tracks zig-zagged between the new jetty on the coast and this expanding inland hub of exploration and industry.

It was the future, mind you, and my Bedouin parents were quick to realise it. Minding the goats became the responsibility of my younger brother while I was made to attend school, to learn the language of the foreigners and how to operate their strange machinery.

With the projected discovery of black gold in increasing quantities, the number of Americans grew rapidly, and they appropriated more and more of the desert for their workplace and community. I continued to live near the seashore with my family in our traditional baristi home, built from mud, stones and palm fronds, each day hitching a ride in an open truck to the noisy drill-sites and nearby training centre.

On the rare occasion it rained, I would still find my way back to the jebel with the secret pool and savour its unspoilt solitude. If I climbed up onto the boulders, I could enjoy the sight of open desert stretching for miles to the south, peppered with the occasional black dot of a Bedouin encampment. I kept a wary eye over the site of some Bedouin graves below, partially hidden as they were by a small copse of acacia. What would happen to them if the

Americans came here?

Eventually, American wives and children started to arrive and fences were erected around the perimeter of their residential camp. Sometimes, in the course of a day’s work, I might encounter one of these over-confident women, and I would struggle to know quite where to look, unaccustomed as I was to viewing the face (and certainly not the legs!) of an unrelated female.

I felt personally violated when it was announced that ‘my’ jebel was to become part of a golf course development for the foreigners. I knew what a golf course was: by then, I had been overseas on training programs and thought of myself as very modern! But it still felt like desecration.

However, the pool became a permanent pond, a pretty site with reeds and rushes, and bushes that developed into trees over the years, attracting birds and other creatures, and helping to establish a whole new eco-system. It was a deliberate hazard for the golfers attempting to tee-off from the top of the jebel, but an oasis for those of us who knew where the gap in the fence was. And the graves were respectfully skirted by the course of ‘blacks’ and sandy fairways, with the odd camel or donkey still managing to wander through unobstructed.

Several decades later, as I was retiring from a fulfilling career as an engineer, the golf course was relocated and redeveloped, ‘greened’ with expensive desalinated water. The pond, no longer loved, choked up with weeds and rubbish, becoming a hideaway for migrant workers seeking a much-needed rest, and visited only by an occasional unsuspecting dog walker or young Muslim couple flouting convention to meet in secret.

Jaddi, come and see the river!’

My grand-daughter pulls me towards a new pathway and some steps beside the waterfall. At the top of the incline is my old pool, now cleanly reflecting the brightness of the nearby street lights. We follow the path around its manicured edge, through a tidily cultivated and pristine landscape. A small stream tumbles down the jebel, sourced from the pond.

No longer a place to soak my tired feet.

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