Maps: Burckhardt


Born in Lausanne in 1784, and studied in Leipzig, Gottingen and Cambridge before heading to Arabia…he was a geographer and author, best known for having re-discovered in modern times the ruins of Petra, the Nabatean city in Jordan. Burckhardt was an explorer who spent three years in Syria learning the language and ways of Arabia before beginning his journey through the sands and on to Medina and Mecca.

Burckhardt was a modest and self-effacing man whose careful accounts of his travels in Syria and Arabia are classics, and whose conversion to Islam was apparently sincere.

Before leaving Damascus, Burckhardt had tried to anticipate trouble. ‘Knowing that my intended way led through a diversity of Bedouin tribes,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I thought it advisable to equip myself in the simplest manner. I assumed the most common Bedouin dress, took no baggage with me and mounted a mare that was not likely to excite… cupidity …’

…not quite nomadic…

In Jordan, near the Saudi Arabian border where the sands meet the mountain cliffs are the carved facades of Petra –remnants of Nabatean culture. Image credit to Daniel Case – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33632136

His writing covered not only the natural geography of Arabia but also deep insights into the cultural geography of the Bedouin and the Wahabis–peoples of the sands. He wrote of the Wahabis:

‘The founder of this sect is already known as a learned Arabian named Abd el Wahab who had visited various schools of the principal cities in the East, as is much the practice with his countrymen even now being convinced by what he had observed during his travels that the primitive faith of Islam or Mohammedism had become totally corrupted and obscured by abuses and that the far greater part of the people of the East and especially the Turks might be justly regarded as heretics. But new doctrines and opinions are as little acceptable in the East as they are in the West and no attention was paid to Abd el Wahab until after long wanderings in Arabia he retired with his family to Derayeh at the period when Mohammed Ibn Saoud was the principal person of the town.’

Travelling as a poor man, Burckhardt drew close to the Arab tribes, he was depending upon them. His books tell the strange stories…lessons?

‘Unfortunately in Kerak he learned that cupidity is a relative thing. For there, for the third time, he placed himself under the protection of a shaikh—the Shaikh of Kerak—and for the third time was betrayed. Although he swore on the head of his son to protect Burckhardt, the shaikh promptly robbed him of most of his funds and turned him over to a guide who made off with the rest and then abandoned him. Again he was stranded in the desert without either money or a guide.’

The difference between truth, prejudice and political correctness can only be learned by the individual. But Burckhardt’s writings from two centuries ago and the contributions from many contemporary authors frame a window of understanding for that landscape and the humans who have called that desert their home.

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Sustainable Rimal

The open forum of majlis functions from small groups of close friends, up to and including the largest groups of people speaking directly to the rulers of each Emirate where anyone can speak with the ruler at majlis. It is relaxed as is traditional at majlis--relaxed as the four Emiratis in the above image--note that three of them are wearing aqal headresses and one is wearing a hamdaneya headress.

The open forum of majlis functions from small groups of close friends, up to and including the largest groups of people speaking directly to the rulers of each Emirate where anyone can speak with the ruler at majlis. It is relaxed as is traditional at majlis–relaxed as the four Emiratis in the above image–note that three of them are wearing aqal headresses and one is wearing a hamdaneya headress.

Erik Chalmers, Jean-Claude Thibaut and Theuns van der Walt share a social night of conversation over dinner and televised football with a small group of Emiratis who have a special interest in the Liwa Qsar Project under construction in the Empty Quarter.

Following is a short part from Chapter 11: Villa Majlis to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis

               Sustainable Rimal

What happens when popular jargon meets a larger than life, a larger than time landscape? What is sustainable about something that is ‘always shifting’  Or, rather, is ‘always shifting’ the most fundamental component of sustainability? Is sustainable larger than time, is it larger than eternity? Ha!! The more attention paid to popular jargon, the more folly suffered!

Fairuz, an Emirati from Liwa Oasis taking personal interest in the Liwa Qsar project, Jean-Claude, the Belgian Ethnobotanist, and Erik Chalmers had much in common. They shared interest, yet with varied perspectives, on the sands (rimal) and on the Bedu life style.

They sat down together. Fairuz asked for dates and kaouwa, Arabic coffee, which was then roasted, ground and prepared on a side table next to him. Chalmers and Jean-Claude joined him. Traditionally taken in restrained amount, kaouwa and dates were a sweet, soft, tender, buttery, room temperature date washed down with a thimble full of the hottest, bitterest, freshly brewed, cardamom and clove flavored coffee.

Following the kaouwa, Chalmers took the opportunity to explore a topic which had been on his mind since hearing Kelvin Isley the other day describe his experience of an almost unearthly, powerful rhythm of the heat emanating from the sands. He drew on Thesiger’s recognition of the exceptionally strong power of the sands. Thesiger had observed in the Bedu, people intensely occupied with the sands, they never commented on the beauty of the sands, the sky, the night, or the sunset.

Chalmers asked, “In books from both before, and, since the coming of Islam, I have read that djinni, spirits, have resided as unusual forces in the sands. Fairuz, I’m curious, is there anything about the djinni in the sands that could be a good reference for landscape architects these days, sustainability, or otherwise?”

Jean-Claude listened carefully to the question and internally put it into a larger context. He could see the desire among certain social groups for sustainability as a desire for secular eternality, a contemporary replacement for the stability traditionally supplied by religions. As far as he was concerned it was short sighted, a passing fad, ignorant of powers greater than the human mind and intelligence, ignorant of the powers that moved the sands, that put the sands in place. But, at the same time Jean-Claude valued these social efforts, seeing them as an opportunity to get more people in touch with their ethnobotanical roots.

He re-focussed and interjected some facts, “If I may, on the sustainability part, for centuries, it can be concluded that without oil and electricity, this Abu Dhabi Emirate region sustains at most about 25,000 humans, but with very significant, serious hardships.”

“Interesting this concept of sustainability,” Fairuz started, “I agree with your numbers; but, the quality of their life, the tenuous nature of the supply of food and water made life here almost like a, a penal colony.”

Fairuz suggested, “Current environmentalists, mostly from the temperate Western world seem to romanticize a simpler life style–pre-oil–pre-industrial. Life here was hell, even fifty years ago, a day in-day out major struggle for existence.”

Jean-Claude added, “Along the same line, I recently read a novel written by an Emirati lady, born in the 1940s. SandFish was the title and the lady’s name was Maha Gargash. She described her life as a youth and their small herd of goats in the foot hills of the Hajar mountains. She went on, writing that after marriage, her move to the Dubai region, with its dependence on pearling–was nothing but impossible hardships, her whole life–absolutely impossible hardships!”

  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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Chalmers’ Lenses

…can you feel me…

Arid sand, salty sand, sand blasting winds–all under this sun–all day every day–underestimate its strength at your peril.

The 1950s–World War II was over, the modern West was recovering and going forward full tilt into modern life, cities, technology, everything. Meanwhile in the Arabian Peninsula, Maha Gargash, in The Sand Fish, tells that Noora al Salmi was living a life where her people were still defending their tribe against other tribes. And that beast of a sand desert was then, a half century ago, no different than today–perilous.

Chalmers knew how essential were his broad explorations of cultural and natural landscapes on this project. He knew that without those extra facets of knowledge, his expected success could be compromised and irretrievably undermined.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal

               Chalmers’ Lenses

Despite the last minute circumstances around which Chalmers normally received requests to fix projects, he always endeavored to understand the larger landscape context of those projects. To Chalmers, this included understanding the regional geography, both natural and cultural. Knowledge imparted strength.

To broaden his understanding of the Rub Al Khali, Chalmers would vary his perceptions of a subject, through a variety of questions, then, with each question, he would consider a variety of options. He called each option, a lens–each different lens varying in its magnification. He would then sieve the varieties of information he discovered, to end up with the nuggets, the nuggets that could elevate project quality, assure project success.

For example, he asked himself, exactly where does the Rub Al Khali start and end? Do you measure it on a map of the world…a map of the Arabian Peninsula…a map of the Abu Dhabi Emirate…a map of the Abu Dhabi Municipality? Or, on a map of oral history, as told by a Liwa Oasis resident? Is it a question of natural geography, or, cultural geography? Is it a question of geographic space, or, geologic time?

Chalmers used all resources to understand the landscape, to filter information, to gain knowledge, to enrich his project. But despite all his calculated lenses and such, deep down Chalmers had a sense that this sand desert around which, over the last decades, he had built many projects–this sand desert had dimensions he could not measure.

  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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Kismet

…remember…

Whether visiting as a tourist, on business or a white collar mercenary–hard to tell the difference between them in the public realm–everyone who comes to the Gulf Region inevitably looks for fun; and, everyone is reminded there are rules for expatriates, business people and tourists. The warnings are there.

In this Gulf Region world of international development, design, construction and facility management, the white collar mercenaries, like many of the characters in The 23 Club, build up–in a loosely linked community–a broad network of international contacts. Among them, from time to time, kismet meetings occur.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

               Kismet

Chalmers was strangely ruffled. More than his rift with Madge, more than these last couple hours, it was the last twenty four hours that were now too vivid, almost visceral in his head. His thoughts drifted back to the blood in the streets, to Jean-Claude, to Bahrain, to Ashura. His thoughts drifted back as he recalled yesterday, about mid-day.

On this trip to the UAE, he had had to make an overnight stop in Bahrain. He didn’t think much of it, an extra overnight. He had not checked the Hegira calendar. It was the Day of Ali. He had read about this special Shiite day; but, he had never seen it, and had no reason to think about it until he was at the hotel breakfast buffet that morning. He bumped into an old friend, Jean-Claude Thibaut, who, on his way from Papua New Guinea, coincidently had also stopped over in Bahrain.

Chalmers had first met him nearly twenty years ago, while they were both speakers at a national conference sponsored by the American Society of Landscape Architects. They shared an educational background in Brussels, a landscape fondness for the Alps, and a fundamental agreement on the importance of integrating ethnobotanical cultural roots into contemporary landscape design.

When Chalmers explained he was on the way to the UAE to fix a project in the Empty Quarter, Jean-Claude told him about related research he had done there in the past five years. For both, this was a welcome coincidence. Jean-Claude adjusted his schedule; and they agreed to meet up in the next week to visit the Empty Quarter together and compare notes.

Jean-Claude Thibaut, a forty nine year old Belgian, was a confirmed bachelor who found his pleasures in the ‘hair-shirt’ explorations of cultures, of marginal groups just outside the edge of mainstream society, people still in contact with the land, with the old ways–Bedu, Berbers, Calusa fisherfolk descendants, true Gypsies.

He examined human relationships with plants, through landscape, language, music, life. He was a very broad scale ethnobotanist. He did not write for publication, did not have a PhD; but, he did maintain extensive multimedia digital archives, all collected first-hand:  stories, songs, movies, images, along with plant related artifacts, such as amulets, charms, talismans.

Born into a wealthy entrepreneurial Belgian family, he took birth in the Belgian Congo where he spent the early years of his childhood. He was a polyglot graduate of international schools in Brussels and Gstaad. Following formal education at the University of London, he had travelled and visited all major botanical institutions in Africa and South America, gathering ethnobotanical information before his first post with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Ultimately, he became a director there. He had since retired to focus full-time on his personal research activities.

At five foot eleven and 165 pounds, he looked popularly slender and athletically lean. He had a self-effacing presence, and a manner of dress and hygiene uniquely making him as at home meeting and greeting in a five star Monte Carlo resort, as in a majlis tent on the edge of the Empty Quarter. He was not shy about sharing the realities of the groups he studied–‘over the edge’ would be the polite way to describe his unusual first hand experiences of old, almost forgotten ways of human interactions with plants in the landscape.

Between Chalmers and Jean-Claude, despite their substantial grounds of agreement, were interlaced threads of ambiguous tension, mostly friendly, mostly the subtleties of hidden cross-cultural joking. Those subtleties were built from Jean-Claude’s obsessive frequenting of the boundary edges between humans and plants, inspired originally by his attraction to the writings of William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castenada.

Jean-Claude was an explorer. Chalmers was a builder. They were friends, even though their clatteringly different approaches to the landscape often belied that friendship. Nevertheless, Jean-Claude was happy to see Chalmers and greeted him saying, “Well, my old friend, here we are together in the Middle East! Do not tell me you are about to become, once again, the ‘Surveyor of Fabric’ on some new mind boggling landscape extravaganza?!”

  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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Passion…obsession…chiaroscuro

Landscape is all of these–all the time–stirring–changing…and so I must write.

…chiaroscuro…

And so it is, too, for Erik Chalmers, the protagonist in The 23 Club, himself strangely attracted to the mysterious Empty Quarter…despite the exhilarating life around his home in the Berner Oberland of the Swiss Alps.

Only his obsession with landscape, to build captivating gardens, could drive him to this place, the Empty Quarter, a place historically incapable of supporting life!

…and chiaroscuro…

This is Erik Chalmers’ landscape journey into the Empty Quarter. This is the Rub al Khali. With its own chiaroscuro, this beast turns obsession inside out.

The 23 Club is a landscape story. It is fiction from fact. It is chiaroscuro. Erik Chalmers’ journey through geography…through history…at best, like the story itself…chiaroscuro…always a blur, always a hope–for clarity, for an inspirational result.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(to be continued)