Log Cabin Chronicles
Letter From the Oasis #1
Jerry Buzzell
Jerry Buzzell
Dr. Jerry Buzzell, a Vermonter who now lives away, teaches anatomy at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain. For the next 4-5 years, Abu Dhabi will be the home of Jerry and his wife, Linda. He expects to file periodic reports from the region, as he did while living and teaching in Kuwait.

Jerry's previous columns are archived HERE

Posted 11.01.00
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates


Dear friends,

I have joined the Emirates Natural History Group, one of the most active clubs in Al Ain. Recently, a group of us went on a field trip to several sites in nearby Oman.

Al Ain UAE and Buraimi Oman are twin towns and it is sometimes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. People work and travel freely between them.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the border post is situated about 40 km inside Oman, so it is possible to do quite a lot and visit quite a number of places in Oman without visas or customs formalities.

After assembling in Al Ain, we drove in convoy to Buraimi to visit the fort and souq.

The fort is a massive concrete structure with crenellations and heavy wooden doors, overlooking the souq. The heavy wooden doors were closed. The souq was not closed, so we wandered there instead.

Lots of treasures were on sale for the unwary tourist khanjars (Omani daggers), coffee pots, camel blankets, saddles, etc. And rifles and ammunition, which is not what one tends to expect here, though they are said to be commonplace items in souqs in Yemen (where tourists may be kidnapped by marauding tribesmen brandishing rifles).

After a brief pass through the main souq, we drove to the Buraimi camel souq. We could tell we had arrived when we saw two pickup trucks parked by the road, each with several camels in the back, strapped down in kneeling positions.

They didn't seem to be distressed, just sitting there (in the sun) in the back of pickup trucks. I can imagine, though, the sort of reaction that sort of display would elicit in Vermont or the Townships.

We parked the cars beside the main camel market and were immediately surrounded by talking and gesticulating men wearing the Pakistani shalwar kamiz (long shirt and baggy pants), vying to show these white-skinned tourists the sights of the souq (and earn a few rials in the process).

Several of my fellow tourists took them up on their offers and were allowed to pet camels and to have their photos taken with them. I preferred to wander by myself, taking photos wherever the opportunity presented itself.

The market was divided into separate fenced areas, each containing from one to several camels. There were a few mothers and babies, as well as camels apparently destined for racing, for work, and for the stew pot. Most of the camel herders sat in the shade watching us. It was, after all, unlikely that any of us would actually buy anything.

After leaving the camel market, our route took us about 30 km into Oman. Along the way, we stopped beside the road in Fossil Valley where we checked out the numerous fossils of shellfish strewn all over the ground. Our destination was Mahdah, a small village and oasis, where we planned to look at their falaj system.

The falaj is a traditional Omani irrigation system. It is similar (or identical) to the Persian qanat (beloved by Scrabble players) and North African foggara. There are different types of falaj, reflecting different circumstances and methods of water delivery.

Water is generally tapped from a well, a stream, or from rain runoff, and transported in tunnels to a series of open channels, where it is delivered to its destination.

Falaj have operated for hundreds (some for thousands) of years. Some are said to deliver water hundreds of kilometers from the mother well. Complicated schemes are in place to control the distribution of the water and its use (consumption, washing, and irrigation).

We arrived in Mahdah at about 11:45 a.m., which was fortuitous as people were washing to prepare for Friday prayers. After parking the cars, we walked along a footpath beside the falaj. On the left side was a high wall and Debbie warned us not to try to look over that wall (that's where the women were bathing). The falaj was inside a low wall on the right, where men and boys were washing their clothes and themselves with the falaj water.

Further along, the falaj ran beside the path. More washing was going on here. A lovely old man wearing a loincloth was sitting in the water, lathering his body with soap, his white beard and the white fringe around his bald pate encircling twinkling eyes and a gap-toothed grin.

When he was satisfied with his scrubbing, he lay down lengthways in the falaj and allowed the water to run over him, head to toe, washing the soap away with the dirt and leaving him clean enough to pray.

This falaj apparently begins in the hills above the town, with a very deep well to the aquifer. From there, tunnels have been dug channeling the water to the town by gravity feed. In town, the falaj is a concrete trough, about a foot deep and two feet wide, and the water flows swiftly.

The falaj is communal, its water available to all, up to the point where the old bather was washing. Beyond this point, the water is distributed into different channels, owned by different families, to irrigate the date palms.

Water flow into each channel is controlled by a metal plate across the falaj, which is lifted (to allow water to flow into the channel) or lowered (to hold it back). The water is distributed to the different channels for periods of time which depend upon factors such as the contribution of the families to the construction and maintenance of the system, rents paid, etc.

In the middle of the narrow space beside the falaj is a very basic sundial -- a narrow metal rod stuck in the ground, with the hours marked out with stones on either side of it which is their method of timekeeping and the basis of the distribution of the water (during daytime hours when the sun is shining).

We explored the falaj and some of the channels for about half an hour, as men and boys passed on their way to prayers. I offered many of them an "as'salam alicum" and generally received an "alicum as'salam" in reply. As we were leaving, the call of the muezzin went out from the loudspeakers on the mosque beside the falaj, and Friday prayers began.

To Part Two