The sands of time

Cover story John Henzell visits the set of Changing Sands, a 60-minute documentary about the growth of the UAE.

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John Henzell

visits the set of Changing Sands, a 60-minute documentary about the growth of the UAE, where he learns about the journey from the barefoot Bedouin lifestyle of only two generations ago to the modern metropolis we live in today. Photographs by Philip Cheung.

The Emirati actors playing Sir Wilfred Thesiger's Bedouin guides have a problem. Abdullah al Shamsi has the right long flowing hair to play the part of Salim bin Ghabaisha, the famous Bedouin guide from 60 years ago, but modern haircare regimes have rendered it too neat to pass for the head of someone who has just made an epic crossing of the dunes of the Empty Quarter. With the help of fellow actor Khaled al Farsi, who plays Salim bin Kabina, they scruff it into a messier and more authentic style. Beside them Dylan Dolan, a Dubai-based corporate trainer who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Thesiger, is finding the rough rocks of Jebel Hafeet are playing havoc with his bare feet, just as they did in the late 1940s for the English adventurer he is portraying. Al Shamsi and al Farsi, both students from nearby Al Ain, are suffering similarly. Unlike the guides, whose feet were hardened by a lifetime of living barefoot in the desert, the headlong modernisation that is the focus of the dramatised documentary in which they are acting means this pair were born into an easier way of life far removed from their Bedouin ancestors.

The story of Thesiger's group forms about a third of Changing Sands, a 60-minute television documentary being produced by Abu Dhabi-based Pyramovies which will cover an 85-year span from the camel age through to the culmination of the Abu Dhabi 2030 city plan. The Dh2.2 million production has just finished its four-week shoot and is in negotiations for a worldwide distribution deal after its planned debut at the Middle East International Film Festival in October. But the British-Yemeni director Bader Ben Hirsi says one of the goals is to introduce young Emiratis to their own history as well as the global audience.

Al Shamsi and al Farsi are an example of that. Before they were recruited to be in the documentary, they had never heard of the characters they are playing, or the story of how bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha guided Thesiger - known to them as Mubarak bin London, which translates as the Blessed, son of London - on what has been called the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel. Hirsi has also interviewed bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, now in their eighties, for Changing Sands, with the aim of using their example to explain the implications of Abu Dhabi's rapid development. "Really the focus is on the fastest developed nation in recent history, and it's about how they can create a balance between modernity and keep hold of the customs and traditions and national identity, especially since Emiratis are in the minority," he says. "It starts in the 1940s with the guys meeting the late Sheikh Zayed and then it goes to the formation of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed's involvement, the discovery of oil and then the sudden rapid changes in the 1970s through three decades. Now there's an MTV, McDonald's and Coca Cola culture. How can they cope with that rapid change and also maintain their identity of who they are and where they come from? "We've interviewed a historian who remembers walking around barefoot, and now (Emiratis) go to malls where they've got Dior and Gucci and diamond-studded shoes. "Some of the Emirati actors knew of the Wilfred Thesiger story, and some didn't, but they were fascinated and learnt some more, and they realised that Wilfred Thesiger and bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha are very important to their national identity. They've realised it's important and they've loved the experience. "I think this is very, very important, more important than I perhaps anticipated." On the filming location beside the road ascending Jebel Hafeet, the actors playing Thesiger, bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina switch with remarkable ease from new to old. Pristine white dishdashas, blindingly bright on a scorching late April afternoon, are swapped for the deliberately threadbare and dirty ones more in keeping with the kind they would have worn on the crossing. Dolan slips on his own grimy dishdash to hide his modern jeans, enlists Emirati expertise to tie his ghutra and reluctantly surrenders his trainers for bare feet when filming begins. The rifle used by Thesiger on his crossing has been borrowed from a museum in Al Ain for the day, and the actors vary between being impressed by its history and impressed by its weight. Shortly before filming begins, al Shamsi is dressed just like bin Ghabaisha but beside the khanjar on his belt is his mobile phone, on which he is chatting via an earpiece. Al Farsi puts on an ammunition belt while other Emiratis playing bit parts mess around with the old rifles and blink at the glare when they have to give up their designer sunglasses in preparation for the camera rolling. The month-long process of filming, all three lead actors admit with varying degrees of candour, has been arduous. Their feet have not just been assailed by the sharp rocks of Jebel Hafeet but also by the burning sands of the dunes while filming beside the Al Ain motorway. Dolan remembers the first day of filming in the dunes, when he spent a few hours walking barefoot through the sand just as Thesiger had during his years of aspiring to live exactly the same way as his Bedouin companions. "It was so hot I got blisters on my feet," he says. "We were out in the desert for eight to 10 hours a day, and if we didn't get water within 10 minutes of going 'I need water', we were freaking out. Between shoots, we got to sit down in the shade. But we're just getting a taste of what they went through. I'm not walking through the middle of the Empty Quarter like Thesiger did." Al Farsi says he had grown up in cities and had little experience of the traditional ways or the physical hardiness required by Bedouin life. "I haven't really experienced true Bedouin life, (but) my grandfather lived like this. We all used to live like this," he says. "The sand was hot in the beginning but I managed to get used to it. At the beginning of the shoot, it was difficult for me but now I can walk over these rocks." Even al Shamsi coyly accepts the acting "has been a little hard on my feet" but says the greater impression on him was the appreciation of what life had been like a few generations ago. The film set features the usual mix of fleeting domestic dramas behind the camera - someone has forgotten to charge some crucial batteries, a 1940s-era stills camera has gone missing shortly before it's needed for a scene in which Thesiger photographs bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, and another person loses his temper and launches into a brief tirade before apologising for the disruption. All of this Hirsi works through with an almost transcendent equanimity, speaking quietly as he orchestrates a scene that he knows will take half a day to film but is likely to contribute less than half a minute to the 60-minute documentary. All this is part of his goal to bring Arab culture to a wider audience. As someone born and raised in Britain but of Yemeni heritage - his father left because of the civil war in the 1960s - he has always tried to bridge the gulf between the Arab world and the West with his films. One year after the release of his first major documentary - The English Sheik And The Yemeni Gentleman, about being reintroduced to his ancestral culture by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a longtime English resident of Sana'a - the September 11 terror attacks dramatically widened the gap between the West and the Arab world and correspondingly increased the need for those who understood both worlds. "I've got a responsibility really to educate, having been brought up in the UK and born and bred there," he says. "In the UK, I find myself defending the Arab world and in the Middle East I find myself defending the West. Especially after 9/11, my focus became trying to show the Arab and Islamic world." He also directed a film called 9/11 Through Saudi Eyes, based on exclusive access to the hijackers' families and friends, to provide a different view of what led to the attacks in New York and Washington, and another film about the pilgrimage to Mecca. His 2005 feature film based in Yemen, A New Day In Old Sana'a, won the award as the best Arab film at the Cairo Film Festival, which helped him land the job of producing Million's Poet for Pyramedia in Abu Dhabi two years ago. That in turn led to the opportunity to create a documentary on the Arabian oryx and then the chance to make Changing Sands. Wilfred Thesiger died in 2003, aged 93, but Hirsi was fortunate that both bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha remain alive and alert, if frail. Neither of the two knows his birthday but they were teenagers when they joined Thesiger's crossings of the Empty Quarter soon after the war and the general agreement is they must be in their eighties now. When Al Ain's Jahili Fort reopened last December, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha were among the VIPs invited to revisit the place where they met and were hosted by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the future founder of the UAE but then the Abu Dhabi royal family's representative in the emirate's eastern region, after their crossing of the Empty Quarter. Hirsi says he initially wanted to focus on bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha to anchor the tale of the UAE's history but later broadened the scope to include Thesiger's role as well, which helped to incorporate Sheikh Zayed and his role in the formation of what became the UAE in 1971. He then had to cast the Thesiger role, a task he expected to be a challenge but found unexpectedly simple when it came to the attention of a friend of Dolan's, who took one look at the photographs of Thesiger and forwarded it to him. Dolan says he was aware of Thesiger but knew few details about him. "I'd heard of him vaguely. When you go into a bookshop in the Emirates, you always see his book but I hadn't seen a picture of him," he says. "When I got a photo, I showed my wife and she said 'They've got to have you,' so I sent my CV with photos to Ben." Hirsi was on location in the dunes at Liwa when the email from Dolan arrived. At the time, he was not banking on finding an actor who looked like Thesiger and was willing to settle on someone who could act the part. "You could hunt for months and months and months, if you had that luxury. We had two or three other hopefuls who didn't look anything like Thesiger," he says. "As soon as I saw [Dolan's] photo on my BlackBerry, I nearly dropped the phone. It doesn't happen like this." Dolan not only had a striking physical resemblance to Thesiger but also is an amateur actor who lives in the Emirates and, at 37, is the same age as the Englishman at the time of his crossings of the Empty Quarter. Finding the Emirati actors proved to be a tougher task, but after a lot of networking, Hirsi found al Shamsi and al Farsi for the roles of bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha, as well as others for the lesser roles, from two amateur dramatic groups in Al Ain. Dolan says the reaction of Emiratis when he disclosed he was going to play Mubarak bin London in the documentary varied depending on age. "For the locals, there was instant recognition, although it was definitely the more senior guys, people of my age or older, who recognised the name," he says. "Most of the younger guys on the shoot hadn't known about it but that's the value of these things. It only takes one movie for them to learn about it. I think that's really important, especially in the times we're now in where there's so much focus on ensuring there is an understanding of Emirati heritage culture and language. "It shows people where they're coming from, rather than driving around highways in a 4x4. They've got a lot of stuff to be proud of - look how far they've come. This doesn't happen overnight. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making this happen, but you can't step away from culture and heritage." Both al Shamsi and al Farsi say they had been impressed by learning the story of the crossings of the Empty Quarter by Thesiger and his companions. "It's the first time I've understood about them but it's been a good experience," al Farsi says. "I've learnt about how the Bedouin lived before and how they've managed to transfer from that time to the present. I've been able to understand the changes better and how Sheikh Zayed led and his vision to this point." Al Shamsi says his grandfather lived like a Bedouin and his family tried to keep that spirit alive, but it took the experience of playing bin Ghabaisha to fully appreciate the traditional way of life. "I didn't know anything about them but I learnt, as part of this movie, I read some books," he says. "They have a strong heart, really. Who wants to go through cold weather and hot weather? Who wants to live in the desert and eat like they did, where it takes three hours and first he has to hunt some animals?" The experience has also enhanced his knowledge about the UAE's founder. "Sheikh Zayed said if you don't understand your past, you don't know anything about your future," al Shamsi adds. "Put that first. Out of all this," he adds, gesturing at my page of shorthand notes from our conversation to where I had just written that line, "put that first".