In the UAE, the desert has been transformed in myriad unexpected ways, but perhaps none more surprising than the farm created by Sudheesh Guruvayoor.
On land in Sharjah, the 45-year-old from India has created rice paddies, offering a slice of his home state of Kerala in the desert of the Gulf region.
Green Heaven Farms and Camping, Mr Guruvayoor’s rural idyll of water-soaked fields, also features a thatched hut, a pond ringed with sunflowers and bright red chillies growing by the dozen.
For people jaded by the hustle and bustle, traffic jams and high-rises of modern city life, there could be no better escape.
“Here I am, a one-man army who tamed the hot soil of the UAE to create my ‘Garden of Eden’, planting and harvesting seeds for future generations,” Mr Guruvayoor said.
“I used my spare time to plant household vegetables and have succeeded in cultivating [a rice] paddy and wheat in Sharjah.”
Mr Guruvayoor, who is married with two children, created the farm in the Al Zubair district of Sharjah after taking a long lease on the 1.5-hectare site from the Emirati owner in October last year.
Achieving the dramatic transformation took only a few months and the farm opened in late January.
Mr Guruvayoor’s inspiration for the project came from Covid-19 restrictions on flights. With families finding it harder to travel back to India, he decided to recreate a familiar countryside scene in the UAE.
But since opening this year, the farm has attracted people from a wide range of nationalities.
The plot includes a mini-waterfall, a pond with a boat where visitors can sit, an organic vegetable garden and a traditional hut made from coconut palm fronds that visitors can pay to stay in.
Other features include a large water wheel, a well and a viewing platform with views out over the farm.
The Green Heaven Farm additionally has banana plants, coconut trees, a barbecue area, a tea shop and a vegetable shop.
As well as the rice and chillies, other vegetables, including cabbages, are grown at the farm using organic methods. The farm is also home to animals such as rabbits, ostriches, pigeons, lovebirds and emus.
To add an authentic touch of Kerala, there are road signs highlighting towns in the state, including Thrissur and Guruvayoor.
The farm is open to the public from 8.30am to 6.30pm seven days a week, with Saturdays and Sundays being the busiest. Entry costs Dh20 for adults, and is free for young children and pensioners.
Mr Guruvayoor, a former electrical engineer, has lived in the UAE since 1997. His wife Ragi, 42, runs a microbiology laboratory at Sharjah Corniche Hospital, and the couple have a son, Shreyas, 19, and a daughter, Shradha, 16.
“We believe that the fast life of the city should be complemented with the placidity of a village and this is what Green Heaven Farms tries to provide its visitors,” Mr Guruvayoor said.
Looking after Green Heaven Farms and Camping is not Mr Guruvayoor’s main job ― he manages an organic farm in Dubai and a team of staff run the site in Sharjah.
Kerala itself has a tradition of rice production that dates back thousands of years, although from the 1980s cultivation began to dwindle as coconut and rubber became more popular crops.
Efforts have been made, however, to reverse the decline, both to reduce dependence on food supplies from other parts of India and to achieve environmental benefits, because the paddy field system provides drainage for flood waters and is credited with preserving some plants and animals.