Ask Ali: Traditional ways to keep cool during summer

The summer is tough in this region, but we have managed to adapt to such weather conditions since the times of our grandfathers.

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Dear Ali: It’s really a hot summer right now, which makes me wonder how people survived the summer before the invention of air conditioners. Is anything from back in the day still practised now to keep cool? And do you have any tips that expats could use in the hotter months for relief? MG, Abu Dhabi

Dear MG: Personally, I think the heat is fine – it’s the humidity that’s the biggest challenge for us. Indeed, the summer is tough in this region, but we have managed to adapt to such weather conditions since the times of our grandfathers. However, it must be noted that the climate and lifestyle has dramatically changed during the past century, which is why those tricks that our forefathers used to cool down may not work today.

First of all, air cooling isn’t new. Barjeel, a wind tower, is an air-cooling invention used in this region since the 18th century. Thanks to its design, cold air blows down into the house, pushing hot air up and out. Sometimes the cooling effect was so strong that it was really cold in the room where the wind tower was installed. Usually, one house had one tower, and if there was more than one family living together, then a barjeel would be built for each family.

With the popularisation of air conditioning, the barjeel structure is no longer required, but it’s still built, mostly for decorative purposes. Its famous shape, which is a box-like tower with four open sides at the top of a structure, is widely used and often represented at our national and cultural events. You can also see a lot of them at various heritage villages around the country.

Another way of cooling down was to take a cold shower using water from underground streams and wells. Today, this can only be practised in farms or countryside houses where people have access to the wells or special water tanks. At an oasis, people would jump in irrigation channels that we refer to as the falaj system.

With regards to the modern generation and their ways of staying cool, I would say that wearing our traditional dress and head covers help us to carry on in the desert climate just as our grandfathers did. Loose kanduras and abayas are designed to maintain comfort. The design of the national dress helps to ventilate the air between skin and fabric – it refreshes us and dries out any sweat. Also, it covers the whole body and protects the skin from overheating and the direct, dangerous sun rays.

I know that many people who come to the UAE from colder climes are ready to spend the whole day outside, but I would recommend you avoid staying out in the open sun. Instead, go to shaded places in the hottest months to avoid getting sunstroke. If you’re going to spend time outside during the day, wear a long-sleeved shirt instead of a short-sleeved one – it will provide you more comfort and help you overcome the heat. The same goes for a choice of a long skirt instead of a short one. Go for anything loose, preferably made out of natural, breathable fabrics, such as thin cotton and linen.

I will admit that it has become hard to imagine a comfortable life without an air conditioner. What’s even more difficult is adjusting to the temperature differences between inside and outside. Sometimes, the temperature inside air-conditioned buildings can be as much as 20°C lower than outside. Stay cool.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.

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