Jean-Claude Thibaut, Ethnobotanist


Dates and coffee together tell social history of the southern Arabian Peninsula–rarely is there majlis without dates and coffee.

Majlis is a simple Arabic word that has always been a part of the sands–a part of the human matrix over the landscape of the Empty Quarter. Majlis describes people getting together to talk.


Majlis–so, my friends, which language should we use–Esperanto? French? Classical Arabic? Gulf Arabic? Levantine Arabic? Urdu? Malay? Hindi? Or, Farsi? Forget political correctness. The practical language of choice is English, of course–the international language of business. It is the practical reality…but…under the surface…?

Erik Chalmers preparing for majlis with his South African boss, Theuns van der Walt, arrives early and first meets with his close friend, Belgian Ethnobotanist Jean-Claude Thibaut. They sit in a private club, known as the Library, a place of cultural, of artistic stimulation and climatic relief, to compare natural and social notes–landscape, plants, people, desert culture–as it has been, and is, in the Liwa Oasis region of the Empty Quarter.


Abdul Qader Al Rais, his works adorning the Library, is one of the most acclaimed artists from the UAE. Of many talents, he paints, photo realistically, traditional Emirati architecture and landscape. Underneath his images, he existentially addresses the unusually strange changes between inside and outside.

Following is a short part from Chapter 10: Library Majlis to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.


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

               Jean-Claude Thibaut, Ethnobotanist

Chalmers had lingered, a dalliance to say the very least, as he had walked through those gardens. He was now a bit late when he reached The Library. Entering, he was immediately calmed by the mingling fragrances of agar wood, sandalwood and amber, blended in a bukhoor, an incense…an incense that lightly infused the cool, dry and comfortable library air. He inhaled deeply two, three times, then felt simultaneously relaxed and focussed. Jean-Claude sitting, reading the local newspapers, saw him enter. He arose. They shook hands.

After exchanging greetings and sitting down, both agreed the best drink would be Moroccan fresh mint tea, especially since the fresh mint was grown locally in The Library gardens. Along with massive amounts of fresh mint leaves, the mint tea mix included a pinch of black tea, and refined white sugar chipped from large blocks, all to be prepared in front of them. The final presentation according to the menu, should include a seasonably available layer of fresh orange blossoms, floating on the top.

Proper Moroccan tea in a restaurant was always theater. The drama arrived as the waiter poured the tea from the pot to the small tea glasses, elongating the threadlike stream of tea to almost a meter, before closing it down so that not a drop was spilled during the pouring.

As it was poured, the smell of the steaming, fresh mint tea captivated. After the pouring ceremony, a cloth was removed from a small, colorfully hand painted, Moorish style earthen bowl. Inside the bowl were pure white and fresh orange blossoms, along with freshly picked, young green mint sprigs. The waiter gently tonged them into the tea. The orange blossom fragrance overlapped the mint, and by scent alone refreshed nearly to sweet intoxication.

After sampling the hot tea and quietly appreciating the fulsome, blended aromas, Chalmers began to review with Jean-Claude all the key project and business players he had met over the past couple days. Jean-Claude explained how those players were related to the top members of the Abu Dhabi ruling family.

He pointed out, “While these relationships are never really obvious to many of the business people and workers here in the Emirates, behind the scenes, these are the relationships that keep everything ticking over–the relationships with roots deep into Bedu history, that guide the morals and ethics of this Emirate and the UAE.”

Jean-Claude explained, “The unification of the Emirates started with Sheik Zayed bin Khalifa bin Nahyan the First, in the nineteenth century and was consolidated by his great grandson, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan bin Nahyan, who, in the twentieth century, the late 1960s to be exact, successfully coordinated the unification of the seven Emirates. Leadership by the Nahyan family still continues today. These are the rulers of Abu Dhabi. And these are the rulers of the UAE. The leaders of the other six Emirates and the Nahyans interact through majlis as has always been the tradition. Even though national government institutions and administrative procedures have been overlaid, underneath you will find the strong, fundamental bond is the evolving Bedu majlis tradition born from shared longterm hardships.”

Jean-Claude’s eyes fell upon some botanical drawings of Phoenix dactylifera displayed on the wall across from him. He paused, thinking about their simple beauty. He looked over at Chalmers, a dedicated landscape specialist who, in his own way, also loved the beauty of plants. In Chalmers, Jean-Claude saw an international fortune hunter–or a storm chaser if you will–justified because he was here to bring more plants to the lives of Emiratis and he was above all else, good hearted–always been that way through all the years of their association.

Jean-Claude took another drink of mint tea, then looking again at the date palm botanical drawings, he thought of the date palm’s many uses in a transient oasis based culture–uses both simple and also complex. He thought about their position in an austere Emirati culture before he explained further to Chalmers, “The success of the Emirati tribes, enduring and working through the climatic hardships, and the shortage of water has built a strength of character extremely unique.

“Based upon these strengths, the Emiratis, have an internal pride that is rarely examined by the world’s mainstream media. You can find references to it in books, written by authors like Wilfred Thesiger and Frauke Heard-Bey; but most mainstream writers, expat workers and businessmen alike choose the easy way–accepting the centuries-old, negative stereotypes of the Bedu character and overlaying them onto all contemporary business and workplace relationships. That stuff is good to know, but it will not get you to the core of people’s motivations here, mon ami.”

Jean-Claude always spoke in a soft voice in public. Chalmers had to strain to hear Jean-Claude’s next point.

“In public, the Emiratis do not talk about it; but they do have a self consciousness about this modern world, its communications, and, its values.” Jean-Claude, sitting up in his chair and drawing closer to Chalmers, continued, “Emiratis think that modern, Western world values are not based on the strength of austerity, but rather, based on the relativity of excesses.”

Chalmers thought about cultural understandings and the ambiguities of cultural differences, then added, “This kind of cultural gap is a fundamental challenge in all work out here, at least that’s how I’ve found it. For me, a three stage process has always worked:  inform myself, then trust, but verify.” They both sat back, took a drink of mint tea, and relaxed, as the conversation paused.

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


(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

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