Jonathan Raban's writings on Dubai and Abu Dhabi take you back to another era

The British author, who died last week, travelled through the UAE in the 1970s observing a region upturned by the oil boom

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When British writer Jonathan Raban visited the Gulf in the 1970s, the oil boom was upturning the old order of the Middle East. Paths once trodden by camels had been replaced with roads and barasti tents swapped for gleaming high-rises.

Raban, who died last week aged 80, was known for his lively and sincere travel writing in books such as Passage to Juneau and Coasting.

But one of his earlier works, Arabia through the Looking Glass, is a candid account of his travels through Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan at a time of fierce and unrelenting change.

Published in 1979, the book introduces a series of intriguing people, including Bedouin families in Al Ain easing into the modern world, glum British residents in Bahrain yearning for an idealised vision of “youkay” and expat agricultural enthusiasts in Yemen.

Dubai was different. The crowd absorbed strangers easily: Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Arabs congealed into the careless cosmopolitanism of an old port
Jonathan Raban in Arabia through the Looking Glass

In the UAE, where the past disappears at an ever-dizzying rate, his descriptions of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are a personal snapshot of a vanished era.

Raban visits hotels, ministries, offices and walked the streets and souqs trying to make sense of a region transformed.

He was dazzled by the accelerated development in Abu Dhabi that turned the city into a “mini Manhattan”; he gazed at the new banks that lined Dubai Creek and visited Jumeirah — “Dubai’s Los Angelean suburbs”.

Raban was particularly enamoured with the Creek and its vibrant dhow trade, which had a “beauty of a kind European cities have lost”.

Jonathan Raban was impressed by Abu Dhabi's emerging skyline. Photo: Wikipedia 

As he explored the Creek and the new buildings that lined the water, he was also drawn to the faded grandeur of the old merchant houses and their wind towers.

“They had belonged to rich merchants, and 50 years ago or less they must have looked like fine palazzi, lining the waterside in a concerted display of wealth and power,” he wrote.

“The merchants had gone — their heirs now lived in California, plush in seaside suburbs like Jumeirah; and the houses had a sunken-jawed look, now just a storm or two from collapsing into total ruin.

“Longshoremen, jobbing carpenters and small stallholders from the nearby souq had moved in where — until just lately — the great gold and spice merchants had lorded it over the rest of the city.”

In Jumeirah, he wrote, “huge houses lie stranded in the desert … Shampooed dogs came to bark at armoured fences and Pakistani gardeners toiled away over lawns of imported turf.”

But he felt at ease in Dubai, walking the streets there as a European.

“Anywhere else on the Gulf, I would have been clearly marked as an outsider; but Dubai was different. The crowd absorbed strangers easily: Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Arabs congealed into the careless cosmopolitanism of an old port.”

In Al Ain, he met a Bedouin family who had moved into a new house.

“Six years away from being desert nomads, they were talking confidently about careers in engineering and medicine; one member of the family had already worked in Europe and Lebanon; they gave every sign of having adapted gracefully to a life in which … the Range Rover, the combination washer-dryer, two television sets, floral thermos flasks, air travel and the local Hilton were taken perfectly for granted.”

A Bedu town

Raban’s book is a personal travelogue and perspective that largely belongs in its time.

Edward Said's Orientalism had also just been published and it sharply critiques cliched western perspectives of the Middle East, but Raban makes an attempt to understand the region better and admits to the shortcomings of travel writing.

The first edition cover of Arabia Through The Looking Glass by Jonathan Raban.

Down the road in Abu Dhabi, he stayed at the now demolished Khalidiya Palace hotel and was impressed at the audacity of building a city that just years before had been sand, barasti huts and a stone fort.

He gazed out at the gleaming towers with a ministry official in a building in the city and was taken on a trip around the city by Zaki Nusseibeh, the current Cultural Adviser to the President.

Raban wrote: “It was West Side Manhattan, but with more innocence and sparkle than one ever finds in modern New York.”

Raban also said that Mr Nusseibeh advised him to not get carried away by the vertical architecture as the “real city is lateral. It is the hardest thing for a visitor, to see that Abu Dhabi is a really a Bedu town.”

The chapter on Abu Dhabi is called Temporary People and Raban explored some of the transience that can be part of life here.

Such transience would be disputed by many who call the Gulf home, but it is part of Raban’s outlook.

“Temporary People. Migrants. Passengers. I was myself beginning to get used to that hotel life of casual acquaintanceships and few responsibilities to the people whom one brushes past in one’s journey. It is a life in which one learns to become socially weightless, drifting among strangers like a spaceman in a bubble.”

But some of the observations that spring forth wouldn’t sound too out of place in a conversation between people who moved to the Gulf today in search of a better life.

“People here aren’t disillusioned like they are in England,” says one British expat, Roland Moon.

“You respect what they want to do; they respect what you can offer.”

Updated: January 25, 2023, 1:18 PM