AJMAN // As anyone who has driven to the Northern Emirates after sunset will know, the desert either side of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road is populated by 4x4s and groups of men sitting by camp fires well into the small hours of the next day.
The smell of barbecues wafts in the air and some even go as far as erecting lights and projector screens, bringing a slice of modernity to an old pastime.
But the men who take advantage of the cooler night-time temperatures in Ajman are not so much following tradition as they are simply looking for somewhere to go.
For Syrian Rashid Al Mlohy and eight of his friends, a Thursday night in the open air is a chance to wind down from a long working week, and the desert is one of the few places they can go.
“Malls are crowded, noisy and close their doors by 1am, while parks allow only families and don’t allow shisha, so we have no other options really,” said the 38-year-old mall worker.
“We come from different emirates and sit around a fire, telling jokes and playing cards until the wee hours of the morning, when we collect our trash and head home to catch a few hours’ sleep.” His friend, Mohammed Yousef, who drove from Jumeirah to join his friends, said he enjoyed the outings because they are private and quiet.
“We are isolated. Although there are many people parked near us, our noise won’t reach them, and theirs too won’t affect us,” said the 55-year-old Syrian.
“We brought our shisha and meat, we will enjoy our dinner under the open sky and share stories until the sun comes up.”
Meanwhile, 100 metres away, a group of young men sit on the sand with their backs against the side of a car, drinking tea.
“We typically come here almost every weekend in winter but, in the summer, we come whenever the weather permits, to enjoy the quietness and a cup of tea or coffee with our friends,” said Abdullah Rami, 25, from Palestine.
He said Ajman lacked recreational activities and parks allow only families, so it made sense to go to the desert.
“Al Rashidiya Park does not allow single men to enter, and our malls are small and crowded compared with other emirates,” said Mr Rami, who lives in Ajman.
“Driving to other emirates means wasting our time in traffic jams, so we opt for the open air and company of friends, away from the noise and car fumes.”
Fellow Palestinian Sami Bassam said the evenings revolve around general topics. “We talk about cars, music, work and watch movies on portable DVD players before we call it a night,” he said.
Having driven south on the E111 from Ras Al Khaimah, 42-year-old Sayed Al Oqili took fresh fish for a late dinner and social gathering with friends on the roadside in Ajman.
The group of friends, who hail from RAK, Sharjah, Dubai and Umm Al Quwain, sat down on a long carpet, socialising as they waited for the fish to grill on a small fire.
“Every month our group of friends gathers here to have dinner,” said Mr Al Oqili, who is from the Comoros Islands. “Our talks usually revolve around current events, social topics and we share stories of old.”
Although male-dominated, the pastime is not exclusively for men, as families also park up and camp out, with children playing football on the sand.
“We come here every once in a while with our relatives” said salesman Khalid Mansour, 39, from Sharjah. “The kids play together, women talk and run after the children to feed them, while us men ready the fire, and grill the meat and chicken and talk about the latest news in football.
“Sometimes you just want to leave behind work, the city noise, crowded malls and enjoy a long night with family and relatives over a barbecue and laughs, until the sun comes up.”