A moment to make me smile during the storm

Peter Hellyer reflects on the storm that battered the country last week

Women walk along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi during the rainstorm last week. Philip Cheung for The National

Most people throughout the Emirates will, I am sure, have their memories of last week’s rain — delighted, scared, fed-up, especially those caught in long traffic jams, or just downright surprised. So too will the tourists who came for some sun, sea and sand and found themselves in the midst of torrential downpours and hurricane-force winds. I hope that not too many of them really believed the promises of the tourist brochures that winter sunshine was guaranteed.

Last Wednesday, I and a lot of colleagues abandoned our desks to stand outside our offices, well-sheltered, watching the storm, while the newspapers and social media were quick to circulate some of the more dramatic pictures.

I cannot remember another storm of such force. While there was, sadly, at least one fatality as a result of a car being swept away in floods in the mountains, it could so easily have had a much heavier toll in terms of lives and of damage to property. That’s something for which to be grateful.

It's not, though, images of flooded roads or uprooted trees that will stay in my mind from this winter's rain. Instead, it's the memory of a trip I made a few days earlier into Fujairah's Wadi Safad, one of my favourite spots.

The day before my trip, much of the east coast had been hit by another massive downpour, which had lasted for a few hours and had led to torrents, several metres in depth, rushing towards the sea.

On the day of my trip up the wadi, however, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. Although the two reservoirs were full — they had been overflowing the previous day — the water had subsided to the level of a stream, perhaps half a metre deep in most places.

The wadi was full of people who had come to enjoy the unfamiliar sight of the flowing water. Emirati families, often made up of three generations, had parked their cars on the roadside or on adjacent impromptu parking spaces and were set on having a good time. Below the ancient hilltop fort of Husn Safad, the barbecues were at work as people strolled around, young couples hand-in-hand, and little boys and girls were squealing with delight as they paddled in the stream.

Somehow, inhibitions and natural reserve seemed to have fallen away. People were chattering away merrily to each other, happy to enjoy the scene. So was I, though I didn't know anyone. I commented to one couple on the behaviour of the children. "It's not surprising," they responded. "It's been 10 years since the wadi last flowed like this. Most of these kids have probably never paddled in a stream before."

One abiding memory is one to share with our new Minister of State for Happiness. Almost everyone I saw had a smile or a wide grin on their faces, relaxing as they enjoyed the blessings of the previous day's storm.

Back in Abu Dhabi a few days later, standing outside my office with colleagues, it was the same: grins and smiles, happy chatter. "Does it remind you of rain back in Britain?" asked one colleague with whom I've exchanged only the occasional greeting over the past few years.

I wandered away from the crowds at Husn Safad, following a goat path under the trees on the long-abandoned terraced fields through a carpet of spring flowers, listening to the calls of the bulbuls and sunbirds and to the sound of the babbling stream. This, I reminded myself, was as much a part of the Emirates as its big cities, its skyscrapers and traffic, with people at ease with others, enjoying, and being thankful for, the aftermath of good rain as their ancestors must have done for centuries. That’s cause for happiness, indeed. As I remember it, I'm smiling again.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National