Abu Dhabi means "father of the gazelle," and in this most timely work, Jo Tatchell, a British journalist, explains the legendary origins of the name for this increasingly important global city. The name dates from 1762, when members of the Al Bu Falah family were hunting, pursuing a gazelle that walked through the shallow waters of the Gulf to the island that would be so named. Thirty-one years later, they made the island their permanent home. For sure, they wouldn't recognize it today!
Tatchell is no "parachute journalist," writing standard, pre-packaged vignettes that are so often required by "editorial concerns" back home. She spent a good portion of her youth in Abu Dhabi, arriving in 1974, at the age of three, with her parents. This was only three years since the emirate gained its independence from Britain, and joined seven other emirates in what had been called the Trucial Coast to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Her father was a Director of the Spinneys supermarket chain; unlike many other expatriates, he understood the value of regular "tea drinking" with his hosts, and therefore was frequently in attendance at the majlis (roughly, an "open house" held by the government, where much business was actually conducted). She left for boarding school in the early `80's, but would make periodic visits to her family. This book is a result of her extended visit in 2008 to observe the Emirate's transformation after four decades.
Her "roots" in Abu Dhabi opened many doors, and in several cases, you sensed that the conversations, particularly with the native Abu Dhabians, were open and frank. Overall, she does a good job of giving the reader a true "feel" for the country by interspersing her personal interactions during her return visit with chapters outlining the overall historical developments in the area. She commences with an incisive vignette involving Edward Henderson delivering a trunk full of cash, which represented the oil royalties, to Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, at his desert encampment, in 1965. In another, she relates her visit to Edward's widow, "la grande dame," Jocelyn, who was still living in A.D., under the auspice of the ruling family, the al Nayhan's, when the author visited in 2008. Tatchell devotes part of a chapter to Wilfred Thesiger, most famous for his crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1947, as chronicled in Arabian Sands (Penguin Classics), and who called A.D. "the final disillusionment." Tatchell's assessment of Thesiger resonated with me: Thesiger was a romantic, who crossed the Empty Quarter in the winter cool, and bemoaned the passing of the comradeship (and perhaps more) of the old times, but the rationale choice would always have been to forego the heat, hardship, hunger and thirst of the hard-scrabble life of the desert and accept the comforts of those who had created the modern world by mastering technology, sometimes sardonically referred to as "the velvet rut."
But the book is far more than expat tales. There are numerous Abu Dhabians whom she interviews, some she has known over many years, such as Safwan, who takes her on a trip to the much changed desert. She describes her meeting with Abdullah Masaood, who her father used to work for as an adviser. He "has it all" now, in terms of material success, but says that he was much happier in his youth, with his place secure in the love of family. She concludes her visit by interviewing Abdulla Al Amri, who introduces the concept of "Middle Islam" to her; a much more tolerant brand than is espoused by some of the UAE's neighbors, and suggests that their efforts may result in a new Islamic "golden age."
But all is not upbeat. She reports on the "underbelly" of life in A.D., and all too often the terrible ennui of the rich who have it all, but don't know what to do with it. Her comparison with Michael Jackson was spot-on. Normally she makes appropriate cultural comparison, fairly raising Western problems: "People stay silent around the rich. There are, of course, intermittent tales of whoring and drugs, but isn't that what the unbound and wealthy anywhere do? The excesses of the hedge-fund contingent and Russian oligarchs are something to behold..." And the reported reason why her brother Bill permanently left is horrifying, and almost certainly true. Coupled with another very dark vignette, it would seem that this book is bound to be banned in the country it is about, all too sadly so.
"Frumpy" Abu Dhabi. The "step-child" of far more glitzy Dubai, yet it was the more conservative values of A.D., and vaster sums of money that recently rescued Dubai with a $10 billion bailout, which may very well have announced A.D.'s new preeminence. Along with its cultural efforts in bringing branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim to the country, and the recognition by its Prime Minister that a melding of cultural values is essential for this small country's survival.
When Tatchell surveyed "the cultural scene" it was telling that she interviewed no fellow writers. In surveying Amazon, very little, aside from the standard "guide books" has been written about Abu Dhabi. Cultural "constraints," (sometimes known as not wanting to get the story "wrong," by offending the powerful,) seems to have inhibited the native Abu Dhabians from telling their own story. Among the Westerners, few people have been so ideally placed, both in terms of personal history and outlook, as Jo Tatchell, in rendering this much needed account. A solid 5-stars.
on January 1, 2010
Anyone who's interested in Abu Dhabi and the Emirates should read this book. Finally a book which organized my loose facts about the city and region. Information is well portioned. One meets interesting people, who share their stories. Something one would like to do himself but does not have the connections the author has. Lots of history, some of it totally unknown to me (f.e. Nixon's plans for an invasion of the Gulf). References are very up to date. There is even mention and discussion about the new Master Plan for Abu Dhabi 2030 (kudos). Many aspects of life (almost all of them) are covered (traditions, tribe life, old meets new, transitions, women, religion, etc). The author really did her research, didn't only rely on childhood memories, although these are very intriguing as well. One can learn important Arabic words. Great source of information and interesting opinions of the author.
on May 15, 2016
In the timeline of Abu Dhabi history, this book is a follow-up to M.A. Fahim's excellent eyewitness account, "From Rags to Riches."
Author Jo Tatchell revisits the country where she had arrived as a child in 1974 and spent her formative years. She is in an excellent place to compare the "then" and the "now" (meaning circa 2008), having absorbed a lot of fascinating information about the early days of the oil boom from her father, who managed Spinneys, the first supermarket catering to expats. She meets with some prominent locals and old-timers who have made the capital their permanent home; they are happy to reminisce. Her efforts at gaining access to old newspapers in the National Archives, however, are somewhat less successful (partly due to the digitization process which is underway).
Jo Tatchell is an excellent writer and I really enjoyed the book. Her observations are spot on and her background information appears well researched and quite accurate. Part memoir and part travelogue, with a bit of history thrown in, the book sometimes left me hungry for "more," which is a compliment as well as a complaint.
In the years since the book came out (2009) a lot has happened in the United Arab Emirates. There was the global economic crisis, which hit the country late, but hard, followed by an ongoing recovery. The emirate of Abu Dhabi has proven itself to be smart and resilient in the face of this adversity, opting to become the cultural capital of the area. Here's room for a sequel.
When she knew Abu Dhabi as a girl, the daughter of the British manager of the Spinney's supermarket chain, it was far less glamorous or pretentious, a forlorn scorched and arid corner of the world peopled by bedouins, fishermen, and shepherds getting their first taste of first-world luxuries such as air conditioning, refrigerators, and automobiles. Jo Tatchell left in 1993, to return 15 years later to find the city of her childhood almost unrecognizable.
The Abu Dhabi she knew, where "the wilderness was at the edge, never more than a moment away," had been replaced by something more like a fully developed city, in fact now the richest city on earth. But behind the façade of modern architecture and hyper-consumerism she sees a city without a purpose or a vision - a city without a heart. Recent initiatives to build local versions of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University appear as attempts to breathe culture into the soulless hulk of a city.
"Abu Dhabians have compressed six hundred years of economic growth into just forty. And at the end of it they have reached the outer limits of consumption and found there is nothing left. Instead, they have turned their attention to the new frontier of empire building. They now appreciate the value of fostering an authentic and meaningful society. There is a deepening hunger for this, the ultimate badge of civilization. They crave the respect and influence that comes with being seen as a culture of expression."
If her analysis is accurate, and the aspiration is genuine, this is good news for the UAE and for the region, the emergence of a model for cultural pluralism in an area known largely for religious orthodoxy. Can they do it? "It's not so much what they do with money," Tatchell explains, "but what they do in spite of it." The greatest challenge, she thinks, will be in transforming the mindset of the people, of overcoming social hypocrisy in order to create "genuine credibility and moral admiration."
Tatchell is a perceptive observer with a genuine knowledge of and interest in the place and people of Abu Dhabi. A few sections of narrative are perhaps the weakest parts of the book; her dialog is a bit stilted and the incidents relate to the grander story of the city only loosely. This is otherwise a wonderful tour of Abu Dhabi. Thank you, Ms Tratchell.
on July 15, 2013
I wish more people would write books like this about other parts of the world. I liked this book because it went from story to story to explain the history of Abu Dhabi. Reading it was like listening to a friend talk about their travels. The books includes a mystery, tragedy and quirky cultural perspectives.
on May 30, 2013
Jo Tatchell lived there for a few years and then returned to look it over and write about it. A good view of the surface and what lies beneath in at least a few cases -- so you get a sense of the contradictions as well as the norms of everyday life.
on June 12, 2015
This is a non-fiction book about Abu Dhabi, which explores its rapid transformation over just 60 years from a coastal fishing village to a developed country of extreme wealth. From this book I have learnt so much about a nation which I never visited or thought much about. It is a tiny nation, built in one of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth financed by oil which will one day run out.
The population consists of only 15-20% of UAE citizens, the rest are expatriates and immigrant workers.
Unlike its neighbouring Muslim countries, the rulers have been adamant that although the religion of the Emirates people is Islam, they remain open and tolerant to any faith. They have seen the advantages of the western ways and have taken what they feel they have never had.
Despite an image of openness, censorship of material such as movies and internet does exist.
The author arrived in Abu Dhabi at the age of 3 when her parents migrated there; so she has some memories to share of the early days of the country’s development.
She returns to Abu Dhabi as a journalist to investigate and to try to understand the plans for progress. At present the leaders are placing an emphasis on developing themselves as country of culture. She also talks to some of the incredible wealthy citizens who she finds are not always happy. The women are often idle, having housemaids and nannies, and their fathers, and then their husbands have the final say over whether they are allowed to study or have a career.
Islam had its Golden Age back in the 7th and 8th centuries and the leaders of this country have a dream of a revival.
The books worth a read if you are going to visit, or have an interest in understanding this country and its people.
Jo Tatchell is uniquely qualified to write this book. She not only straddles two cultures, but also two eras in Abu Dhabi. Her father's work brought this British family there in the 1970's and 1980's. In her young years she experienced an Abu Dhabi way of life that had more in common with its culture 1000 years ago than that of today.
The world's thirst for oil has created a wealth and population explosion in this emirate. In the past 40 years the native population has become dwarfed in numbers by foreigners who are needed to do the work be it sophisticated engineering or physical labor. Tatchell, returning after living away for a number of years, visits old friends and friends of her parents. Through her conversations with them you get a feel for how this nation has been transformed in a very short time.
Tatchell also shows the traditional culture that lives behind the shiny modern offices and plush homes. Women need their father's approval to enter into a career. Despite the plan to be a world cultural center, censorship is accepted. There is a system of labor that allows virtually no mobility for foreign unskilled labor. It does not appear to have a modern legal system.
While this book is not a history, there is a lot of history considering how little is available for the general reader. One recurring thread, Tatchell's quest for back newspaper editions, shows the difficulty of finding Abu Dhabi's past and the low priority placed on it. In the early twentieth century, power struggles resulted in royal assassinations. This, and fresh memories of living off the land are not the images Abu Dhabi wishes to promote or that individuals want to remember.
Written in an engaging prose style, this book should appeal to a wide audience. While it is not a tour guide, is an excellent introduction for anyone who will be touring or living/working in Abu Dhabi.
on October 21, 2012
Loved A Diamond in the Desert. I read when I was new to Abu Dhabi and still overwhelmed with the culture. This book helped explain as much as is possible, why culture is the way it is here while weaving a very interesting and personal story. A great read for anyone who is living in or considering moving to the UAE.
on July 5, 2011
The author relates sensitive realities from her first-hand experience on Abu Dhabi's sometimes not so subtle effort to gloss over perceived transparency with non-transparency. Ingrained cultural habits continue to prevail in spite of Western expatriates' attempts to expose injustices. The author perceptively forecasts the realities of change.