I think it’s important that I establish some sense of proportion here – not everything I see interests me. There, I’ve said it. I pay attention to some things that many people ignore, and ignore many things people find fascinating. That’s the way of the world. Some things I return to time after time, never finding them dull or tarnished by familiarity. Some things I cross the street to avoid. And there are some things that don’t hold my attention in any way whatsoever, but I can’t avoid either.
This, in no significant order, is the current list of things that fall into that last category – the unavoidable and the annoying:
· Days over 100 ◦c
· Dusty winds (especially on hot days)
· Large cities (especially on hot days with dusty winds)
· Sand (especially when blown into large cities on hot days)
· Going shopping (books and cameras excepted)
· Tony Abbott (on any day, in any weather, in any form of human habitation, even bookshops (which I doubt he ever visits))
So a planned visit to anywhere that combines most of these things into a single package does not, on the surface at least, seem to appeal. And this was Dubai. And this is of course basic prejudice – a belief that you know what a thing will be like based on little or no evidence and less experience. Now some people, Tony Abbott being a significant example, seem happy to base their life on prejudice; but when I find it happening in my own head, it upsets me.
Experience should be the enemy of prejudice, and in the absence of experience, knowledge. So I did what I always do – I read; books, maps, pictures. I tried songs, but that proved a step too far. And I started to find things that surprised me; there were flamingos within 15 minutes of the city centre, Dubai has a beach and the tallest building in the world and the wearing of traditional clothes was as much (and possibly more) a marker of nationalism than religion – although it still is about religion in many cases. How could I not really be excited about going to somewhere so new and so very different? If I could get to the beach – and this was an activity that was to prove harder than I expected – I could look across the water into the cradle of modern civilisation. I’d be walking in a part of the world that has known human footprints for much, much longer than most of the world I knew. There were cities, trade, universities, hospitals and astronomy here when most of the rest of the world had yet to discover the wheel and were wondering if fire really was all that useful at all. Much of what we think of as modern was invented in the Middle East and brought to other parts of the world on the wings of trade. For all of this area’s history some of the cites on the in-flight map have a modern connection that is less than welcoming, if no less important in history – The Riyadh and Nasiriyah tourist boards have their work cut out for them before their cites are included on “must visit” lists.
But beyond the history of this region, its geography should be enough to excite a biologist. The Middle East sits at the junction of Africa, Asia and Europe. Its biology is drawn from all of these places – it’s a melting pot for east and west, north and south. A short glace at a bird guide – bought early on in the trip to the amusement of my companions – shows that some birds stray here from Africa, others from Europe and a few occur nowhere else. Bring me your poor feathered masses. As weather systems from north and south punch and counter punch over the Arabian Peninsula, birds are brought from all over and left to find a living in the heat. You never know what you may find. How could such a place not quicken the pulse?
I arrive in Dubai airport at about 4 in the morning. It’s all bright lights, kilometre long “travelators” and flat screen TV’s. A raffle is being run in the duty free section for a McLaren sports car – about $½ million worth of vehicle. They sell gold bars in shops and have wrist watches that cost more than my annual salary. The airport goes on and on. Within seconds it’s clear this country is not short of space, money or ambition. It’s also clear that the neither east nor west, neither Africa nor Asia issue applies to the people as well as the birds. Even in the air port the mix of people – the mix of clothes – is remarkable. Also, given the fact that it’s 4 am here (and who knows what time inside my body) it’s remarkable that I can notice anything at all. Sleep beckons, exploration will have to wait.
Six hours of sleep re-sets the body clock, but the brightness outside the window is a shock. I can see the sea, but the air is thick with dust, so the view is not clear. The line between the sea and the air fades into a graduation rather than stands as a line. The world music of a boiling kettle draws me away from the window to make sweet black tea; my traditional pick me up in foreign fields. A disc and arrow on the ceiling points towards Kaabah. It’s the only hint of the exotic in a room of manufactured, and deliberate, functional, ordinariness. I could be anywhere; well any four star hotel, with clean sheets, potable water and shower that is. The tea has thickened to its required level and I sit and look out of the window; the inside outside transformation is remarkable. Between me and the sea the houses are laid out in regular patterns, reflecting their boxy form. But here and there are little flourishes that split each from the other. The light and the stone seems to give everything a pale salmon pink wash, even the dusty open spaces of car parks and the bare baked roadside that could never be called a nature strip. In the distance tall cranes, swinging with national flags, stake claim to new lands and new buildings. The wavy Dubai creek, tidal and clear, shows up as line of older houses, hugging the water side.
I balance the tea on the arm of the chair and look out of the window, charged with the birdwatcher’s hope that in the next few minutes something exotic, obvious and new will fly past. It doesn’t. There are only pigeons and myna birds, which may be exotic to some (well maybe not pigeons!) but it’s a little bit of a letdown. So, I grab a hat, and like a good Englishman I go out into the mid-day sun. The heat is like an open handed slap to the face; it hits you with an intensity that could cause blunt force trauma and internal bleeding – and it’s not even high summer. This may account for why I walk in the wrong direction – away from the sea rather than towards it. These streets have clearly not been designed with pedestrians in mind; finding places to cross the roads is time consuming and even in the quieter back streets still a little dangerous. Instinctively I look in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic; it’s like learning to cross the road all over again.
Eight, or possibly ten, lanes of traffic separate me from where I want to be, so I cross on an overpass by the train station. The station is a golden bronze tube that tapers at each end; it looks like a roll of high quality Christmas paper wrapped around the rail lines. It has a sleek modern feel to it, an architecture that goes beyond the mere functional to become attractive in its own right. Later, when I see the same shape isolated from other buildings, in the open dusty spaces between freeways, it looks more indulgent, more of a designer’s whim. But the overpass is air-conditioned (as are the bus stops) and it takes me across the road. The buildings on either side of the road really do soar; it feels like you are walking in a canyon of glass and steel. Twenty and thirty storey buildings look vaguely squat, as if they are waiting to spring to their full height. It’s a world of receding parallels, where buildings are contorted by the impossibility of perspective. The straight edges of the buildings come together, moving towards a distant point where, if the buildings were tall enough, we would find an architectural singularity – a point where design, function and ambition all come together at the impossible apex of a tall building.
At almost 830m the Burj Khalifa comes close to achieving this – a stepped spire of blue glass and hardened steel. I choose not to go to the observation deck – the light in the day is held back by the desert dust, and watching the evening lights of tall buildings from another tall building does not really appeal. There is an artificial lake at the base of the building where each night fountains of water dance to loud amplified music. It’s interesting enough, in a synthetic kind of way, but I don’t think I would fly for 16 hours just to see it.
The streets are spotlessly clean, except for rings of cigarette butts cast into the exposed sand at the base of the infrequent street trees. Small dust devils kick up behind the wheels of a remote controlled car dashing around an informal car park. A small lizard slithers, scatter footed, over the piles of sand heaped at the edges of a building lot. It is only in the small, unmanaged fragments of land that you can see the desert reality of Dubai. Bright orange machines dig in the street to lay cables or fix broken pipes and build sand castles on the footpaths. In the modern city the sand has been smoothed and capped with concrete, steel and glass; it’s only where the city breaks down that can see the older face of this area.
Water seeps from a hose to form a short lived a puddle by the side of the road. The premium of water brings small birds down from the trees to drink. Anonymous pigeons and smaller, thick set birds, with white ear patches, upend to drink the leaking water. The heat fries my brain and I make some poor photographic decisions. My mind clears when I stand in the shade, and the pictures get better. The chunky birds are White-Eared Bulbuls – a common species but attractive none the less. Taxi drivers slow down and wave, knowing better than I do about how to travel in the heat. Their motives may not be entirely driven by a concern for my welfare, but their persistence makes a valid point. It’s too hot. I head back to the hotel.
The next few days are dominated by the necessary evil of work. But in the middle of one day an event occurs that I will remember for many years. I find myself sat at a table with three other people – one other biologist and two chemists – explaining some fine point on genetics. Most of the discussion occurs in Arabic – I can’t join in here – but when the conversation flows into English I can contribute. As I always do, I talk and draw at the same time – explanation without diagrams is an unknown to me. And then I notice that I have drawn the same diagram as the other biologist. At that moment our different life paths intersect. The list of differences that brought us to this shared point in time and knowledge would be as long as each of our separate life stories, but this is a clear moment of sharing. It’s a time when a shared knowledge of DNA brings a greater understanding of the DNA we all share. I think many things in the world would be better if more people came to understand these things.
Sometimes unexpected things work in your favour. We have to start work very early, the kind of early that means you need to organise a special breakfast, but also the kind of early that means the day ends before it has normally got going. It’s a day to go and look for that most surprising of discoveries, Dubai’s flamingos.
I feel cut off from the driver by a shared language that does not quite work: we circle the city looking for the salt pans – I don’t know how to explain what I’m looking for and the driver seems confident that I am a madman. But eventually we find a helping hand and we head in a different direction. Suddenly, where before there was only open space and built roads, there are bushes of some sort and behind them I can see birds – lots of birds. They don’t really look like birds; they look more like a whitish pink line, a heat haze product. But they are birds, and there is a freeway between them and me. After more driving we manage to loop back onto the other side and we pull off the road into a patch of pale dust. A path leads to a hide that overlooks the salt pans. It has a security guard and a Zeiss telescope! I really am in a different world.
Most of the birds are grouped along a channel in front of the hide. They are not the classic Alice in Wonderland shocking pink, rather a grey with a deep pink wash – only the legs are brightly coloured. These are Greater flamingos, the bigger member of this eccentric group of bird. Somewhere in the evolutionary history of the flamingo the top and bottom halves of these birds seem to have become disconnected. The upper part – especially the neck – is all the sinuous curves, and snaky elasticity needed to invert the strange beak into the water. The legs are all reverse angles and sharp jutting points. A juvenile bird feeds closer to the hide and even at close range the structure of the bird seems to make no sense.
I keep watching and find a few other birds, but I keep coming back to the flamingos -an unlikely bird in an unlikely place. Maybe it’s a kind of wonderland?