I never imagined an assignment would help me rediscover the authentic heritage of the UAE. I had thought hospitality and kindness had disappeared from modern life.
When I drove to Liwa, the main oasis in Al Gharbia (the western region of Abu Dhabi), to cover the Liwa Date Festival, I came across Emiratis unaffected by social change. They opened their houses to strangers and talked openly about their life in the desert.
The journey began when Hamad Khadim Al Mazroui, a resident of Liwa, offered to take me to a farm he had inherited from his grandparents.
We drove by farms and residential neighbourhoods with three or four families, locally known as Mahdars.
Al Mazroui's farm was located in Mahdar Al Mariaa Al Gharbia, not far from the Al Maria fort built about 100 years ago. Al Mazroui doesn't know the exact size of his farm but says it started very small with three or four Ghait trees.
"Each man would look after a group of palms and live on their fruit. In his time the late Shaikh Zayed allowed farm expansion and supported the development of agriculture," Al Mazroui said.
When Shaikh Zayed became the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he introduced the granary system across Abu Dhabi, including in Al Ain and Al Gharbia, and farmers supported his dream.
"They cultivated many types of dates, such as Dabass, Khalass and Sheshe, which became popular. They also succeed in growing vegetables and fruits," he said.
Pointing at a group of palm trees on the side of the farm Al Mazroui said those are the "blessed palms which started the farm".
The farm also has falcons. A young specimen of the Hurr variety was kept in a huge cage and was being trained to hunt. "The birds are usually tied so that they don't move," Al Mazroui said. "But that could lead to illnesses or weakness of muscles. So we built this cage for him with an air-conditioned area in which he can cool himself in summer. As the bird has to fly to the other end of the cage to have his food, it also keeps him fit."
Al Mazroui has eight children. One of them, Salim, accompanied us. The boy of about 10 was adept at identifying the various varieties of palms on the farm. "Nabtat Saif," he identified a palm his father had pointed at. The knowledge is passed from generation to generation.
At Al Mazroui's residence we were welcomed to the men's majlis. In the traditional community, men and women have separate rooms. Even relatives don't share the same room. In my case I was welcomed to the men's majlis since I had come with men and was accompanied by a photographer. There I met an exceptional man with vast experience and knowledge of ancient life.
At the majlis a tall, thin man with coloured beard shook my hand and invited me to sit. Al Mazroui introduced him to me: "He is an expert on dates beyond competition; he can distinguish dates even to the amazement of professors."
I took my place on the floor in the traditionally decorated room along with boys, some of them Al Mazroui's children, relatives and neighbours.
The men excused themselves to offer Magrib prayers at sunset. The boys stayed back as their father had ordered. A 15-year-old approached me with a pot of Arabian coffee and offered to pour me a cup. Another boy called him and asked him to sit and serve the coffee. He served me coffee in the traditional way.
I tried to remember the last time I had Arabic coffee in the traditional way — served with the right hand in a small cup and polished off in three sips. Serving coffee with the right hand was a sign of respect for the guest. And the guest, too, must drink it the right way. If the guest places the cup on the ground the host asks for a refill.
I drink the delicious coffee and shake the cup while giving it back to the boy to show that I needed no more coffee. If the cup had not been shaken the boy would have served more.
The boy then served me a dish of dates and a basket of fruits and asked me if I wanted tea. I said yes and he served the drink in a small glass and waited for me to finish as he had done with the coffee.
As the men returned from prayers, I began talking to the man of about 70. Abdullah Bin Abdullah Bin Jadeem Al Mazroui believes he was 14 "in Al Fadha". Locally Al Fadha (empty) is referred to the year the Second World War broke out and people had begun fleeing their country to survive. "We did not know what happened exactly. We just noticed that people were leaving and life became more difficult. … Hunger was in the air," he said.
Even at his age, Jadeem Al Mazroui can climb palm trees and walk long distances. "I had to walk last week from Grain Ali to Liwa when my car broke down in the middle of the road" he said.
A young man from the majlis said: "It is about 50 kilometres … the young generation can't do it now."
That is "because they are having fruits and living under air-conditioners all the time," Jadeem Al Mazroui said.
"We lived on fishing and pearl-diving in Delma island; we used to bring rice, wheat and salted fish from there," he said. I asked him how old he was when he started diving.
"I started diving for pearls when I was 15. Most members of my generation had to do it as there was nothing else to make a living." Pearl divers spend seven months at sea and return to land in winter. "Cold weather kicks us out of water and we start looking after palms in Liwa," he said.
As a diver he was paid Rs200 to Rs300. "I used to live like a king till the next season" he said.
The combination of life at sea and in the desert is unique to this part of the UAE, where people make a living from the sea for a part in the year and move to date-farming during another depending on seasons measured by stars.
By the beginning of August, "the thorya star appears in the east and disappears in 40 days. It appears again from west and it is during this time that dates start to take colour — red or yellow. Then the yawza star appears and in 15 days the dates become watery (ratab). After 12 more days the dates are collected and stored for use over the year till the next season," he said.
When the pearl-diving industry collapsed in the region in the 1930s, life became hard and people had to travel elsewhere to find work. By that time oil was discovered in neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Jadeem Al Mazroui and 15 other men are famous in Liwa for walking all the way to Saudi Arabia. "We were at Dukhan in Qatar at that time and had to walk to Dammam in Saudi Arabia. It took us five tiring days to reach. We were hungry and thirsty," he recalled.
Jadeem Al Mazroui worked in Saudi Arabia for five years and spent some time in Bahrain as a worker, or coolie, as they are referred to in the local dialect. When he returned home before the federation was established in 1971, life was not easy. "We hardly found anything to do to make a living; it was hard time till the late Shaikh Zayed started the process for change. Everything started to change rapidly; I was appointed as a doori (guard) for palm trees and paid about Rs105 (about Dh9) a month," he said.
Once Shaikh Zayed visited the area and was offered dates with coffee and he was amazed by the deliciousness of the dates. "I was the one who started planting and cross-breeding dates in the area and was given a water pump to support my work; after that the late Shaikh Zayed ordered greening of the desert and planting of palm trees," he said.
Today Jadeem Al Mazroui is living an easy life with his ten sons and daughters who are educated and some are employed. But he longs for the old lifestyle. "I wish I had my strength and youth," he said.
Unlike other parts of the UAE, Al Gharbia is among the remaining icons of innocence, humbleness, unity and heritage away from commercial and tourist buzz.
Eman Mohammed is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist.