Muhammad Obaid Ghubash
Travelling Tales

Mohammad Obaid Ghubash


Travelling Tales

From Sleeping amongst Wolves

Translated by Rosie Maxton


Abu Omar in the Clouds . . .

and his Plane on the Ground


We had spent a most enjoyable night in the heart of the mountains, but when we tried to set off the next day, we discovered that our old banger of a four-wheel drive was not working. We sought the assistance of our friend Abu Omar,* who had experience with the mechanics of cars, and he came to our rescue surprisingly quickly, as if on standby! Abu Omar refused to tow the vehicle, saying that first he would try to repair it, and after two minutes let forth such a hearty burst of laughter that it reverberated in the surrounding mountains. He revealed that it was not the car itself that was at fault, but rather it was us: we had not realised that the engine had run out of oil! After having a root around in his car and then in ours without any joy, Abu Omar began to search amongst the food and cooking supplies for the journey. The solution came to him in corn oil. At that moment, it did not occur to me that our friend, who had come to our aid so swiftly, was actually contemplating a dangerous undertaking in the heart of those mountains – or, to be more precise, above them . . . 

A month later, Abu Omar invited me to meet up with him at the old airport. Proudly, he gestured towards the small, used plane that he had purchased some time ago. He suggested that we fly to the city of Ras al-Khaimah, take tea there and then return. It was a truly breathtaking experience, cruising at such low altitude as to be able to distinguish quite clearly all the cars driving around beneath us. Before long, we had landed safely on the runway of Ras al-Khaimah Airport.

No sooner had our feet touched the ground, than we noticed four foreign men getting out of another plane nearby, all flushed and red-faced as though they had just emerged from a sauna. They informed us that their plane had almost come down because of a violent storm that had struck the east coast where they had been flying.

After having had tea in the airport café, we once again boarded the plane. However, before long I began to notice that we had diverted from the way home to Dubai and were heading east towards the mountains. I reminded Abu Omar of the foreigners’ warning, but he shrugged it off, saying: “The English always get themselves worked up over nothing.  Trust me! Things are fine.”

Whilst I did not doubt Abu Omar’s intentions, I did recall that the coastguard had once discovered him in a fishing boat without fuel, and on another occasion he had almost ended up in the hands of the Iranians, for entering their territorial waters without permission. It all started to go wrong with a sound resembling an explosion, and then the plane began to shudder . . . When I looked over at Abu Omar, I knew immediately that we were in trouble. In spite of the cold air, he was dripping with sweat, unable to conceal the panic spreading across his face. I tried to speak to him, but he was in another universe altogether. It was terrifying!

And so our plane became engulfed in the mouth of a cyclone. One moment we were dropping towards the peaks of the mountains, the next we were climbing high above the clouds. At times the plane was flipped upside down, so the mountains appeared above us and the sky below. In those few minutes, I sensed our end was nigh. So gripped was I by fear that I even considered throwing myself from the plane; this at least would ensure a quick death. As soon as the mountains were behind us and we had begun to fly above the sea, I asked Abu Omar if I could fling myself into the water. The pilot, submerged in shock, awoke to inform me: “The impact will kill you.”

At last Abu Omar managed to regain control over the machine and manoeuvred it back towards dry land, recalling an old abandoned airfield which the Royal Air Force had used during the colonial period. No sooner had the plane touched down than I rushed to get out. The sensation of the ground under my feet was the most sublime feeling I had ever experienced in my life. Thanks be to God who had been kind to us and returned us to our homeland: a land that cared for its people, after I had witnessed what the sky could do to those unendowed with feathers or wings. I was suddenly struck by a flood of anger, and I wished I had a can of petrol to set that old piece of scrap ablaze . . . However, once I had regained my composure, I realised that it was neither the fault of the plane, nor the pilot. Rather, it was I alone who was to blame, for placing myself at an altitude of five thousand feet at the mercy of a reckless individual. A wide smile spreading across his face, he asked: “Could you have dreamed of such an adventure when we set out to have tea in Ras al-Khaimah?”

I poured a torrent of abuse upon Abu Omar, who smiled apologetically and remarked: “Sometimes curiosity leads us into danger . . .”

“But they warned us about the storm . . .”

“Don’t be angry, brother! Thank God everything turned out fine.”

There was no way that I was getting back in that plane, and once Abu Omar had uncovered my plan to return home by taxi, he began to play mind games with me. He contacted various meteorological offices to ask about the course of the storm, and once he had learned that it had calmed, he proceeded to assure me that conditions were favourable for flying. I got back into the plane as though mesmerised. Yet God really was kind to us and we cruised across clear skies. I can scarcely recall the return journey, first in the plane, then in the car to my house. A dream fragmented like broken glass. Yet the strangest thing was what took place in the aftermath, for the shock remained with me for a considerable time. I lost my appetite, causing my weight to fall dramatically, and I developed a fear of looking out of windows.

And so what became of my travelling companion? I myself made every effort to avoid him and I did not answer his calls. I even steered clear of the streets between his home and his surgery so I did not bump into him. I wanted to forget the experience altogether, yet it plagued my thoughts relentlessly, and for two years I could not board a plane. I lost my appetite for travel.

My friend Abu Omar did not learn from the ordeal, but rather continued to live life dangerously. He persuaded a group of his acquaintances to buy four old airbuses, with which he established a company to transport passengers and goods between Dubai and the war-stricken regions not served by other companies, such as Iraq and Somalia.  Unfortunately for Abu Omar and his associates, after seven months of business an international ban stopped his four planes from operating, and so they remained idle at Amman Airport for several years, in the hope that they would some day be permitted to return to service.

In spite of this, Abu Omar continues to surprise me, for despite everything, in the true spirit of every lover, he regrets nothing. In fact, if he could go back in time, he would not change his behaviour one bit. And what about the four planes parked up on the ground? What about his debts? Abu Omar accepts problems as though they were simply the hand of fate, and insists on blaming the red tape and special agencies that go too far in their safety measures. As he would put it: do we not endanger ourselves the moment that we leave our homes in the morning? Are the roads not perilous? Doesn’t even the air we breathe carry viruses? So what then is the harm in a bit of danger in the vast emptiness of the skies?


At the Table of the Warriors

Through a desire to improve my English, I ended up staying with an English family for several months. However, managing to follow the conversation around the dinner table was the least of my problems: rather, it was forcing myself to swallow the food! Day after day, we were confronted with the blandness of meals boiled in salted water. Hospital food. When I could bear it no longer, I resorted to the local Indian restaurants. For all that the British built an empire stretching as far as India and parts of China they fundamentally failed to appropriate the secrets of fine cuisine from their conquered territories!

Paris was a different matter altogether. The French Empire, in spite of its military blunders, had certainly mastered the secret of successful cooking. Everything in Paris was utterly delectable. Creamy butter smothered on bread made for an unforgettable sensory experience. Even this simple recipe seems to have bypassed English culinary knowledge. My only issue in France was with the portion sizes: tiny samples placed in the middle of our plates, as though we were food critics and not hungry human beings!

During my trip to Germany, accompanied by my good friend Abu Khaled, we were confronted with the issue of the language barrier; however, we found ourselves in awe of its dense green forests, and we explored buildings splendid in their antiquity. Not one building I came across showed signs of having been affected by artillery shells or air bombardment. Period structures had been faithfully renovated, the scars of two world wars erased. Like the Swiss, the Germans relaxed after the Second World War and devoted themselves to living life: manufacturing great cars, perfecting the art of brewing beer and inventing innumerable kinds of sausage!

The language barrier stopped us choosing the food we desired, so we left this crucial matter to our German companion. Our knowledge of his language was poor, and he could speak neither Arabic nor English (in which we could just about get by). At the time, my Kuwaiti friend and I were staying with him as guests, and he daily served us lamb and chicken, believing that keeping any trace of pork away from Muslims was the highest achievement. Even he himself, a most kindly fellow, avoided eating pork, to the extent that not once did we catch a glimpse of it upon the table!

Reflecting upon the subject of meat, my thoughts were guided towards war and politics: do the past wars of the Germans have anything to do with their love of sausages? I recalled what an English woman I met in London, and who had a passion for breeding pet animals, said to me about kittens: as soon as they are weaned from milk and start to consume flesh, a change in their behaviour occurs, transforming them overnight into predatory creatures. Indeed, in Istanbul a friend of mine from Djibouti remarked about the Turks’ partiality for meat: “This is the secret of the Ottoman Empire. The more meat the warriors consumed, the more ferocious they were.”

This very notion, albeit expressed in another language, came straight from the mouth of a Pakistani man who was talking to me about food and cooking methods. He announced confidently that the Pakistanis were victorious in their wars against the Indians because they ate meat, whereas the Indians were raised on a vegetarian diet. Out of politeness, I refrained from correcting his historical facts pertaining to defeats and triumphs. And yet, thinking about all this made me circumspect about theories that link warfare and food. The many rumours that Adolf Hitler, leader of the Third Reich, was a vegetarian, cannot be overlooked; nor can the brutality with which the Japanese fought, in spite of their fish-based diets.

After several days of travelling around Germany, my Kuwaiti friend Abu Khaled began to express his dissatisfaction with the quantity of meat we were consuming. Under his breath, he would roll off the names of fish found in the Gulf – spotted grouper, zabidi, silvery grunt – murmuring softly as though in the ear of a lover. He was thus delighted when we stumbled upon a restaurant where an Arab waiter happened to be working, and he duly appealed to him for help: “God have mercy upon your parents, we are utterly fed up with meat – do you have any fish?”

“Yes we do! We have whale.”

“Good news, my friend! Relief at last. No fish for a whole week, and all of a sudden, we have whale before us!”

Abu Khaled turned back to the waiter and asked him: “Do you have any other fish besides whale?”

The waiter did not comprehend the question, so we abandoned ourselves to the fact that we were to lunch on the biggest type of fish that the ocean had to offer: the whale, which unhinged one-legged captain Ahab out at sea. I had tried many different kinds of fish, but neither I, nor my companion, had ever tasted whale. What was the harm in experimenting?

However, it transpired that our whale, which we impatiently awaited, was not actually whale at all, but rather a small fresh water fish that barely filled our plates! It seemed there had been poor communication between us and the Tunisian waiter, for by ‘whale’ what he had meant was simply any fish, and not in fact the gigantic creature which spouts fountains of water from its head, and protects prophets in its belly!

From the continent of small river fish, I travelled to the United States of America. My visit started off in Boston, the place where, through what came to be known as the ‘Boston Tea Party’, the American revolution against the crown was triggered. Chests of Indian tea, imported from the British Isles, were flung into the Atlantic Ocean for the fish. As for ourselves, we decided to leave the tea to the fish and instead enjoyed some of the white clam chowder for which the city is famous, followed by some lobster from nearby Canadian Nova Scotia.

My next stop was the city they call ‘The Big Apple’: New York, which remembers no one. The city where everything is in motion and all is forgotten in the blink of an eye: people and cars and memories. I had worked in this city for three years, yet here I was visiting it as though I were a stranger, with no remaining friends. Everyone I had known there had left. New York is an interchange at which you arrive, and no sooner have you got there than you are off again to some other destination. Friendships and acquaintances are over as quickly as they are forged.

It was in the land of Uncle Sam that I truly became aware of how tiny I am: Gulliver in the Land of the Giants! In length, breadth and height, everything stretches out; the cars are enormous, some are as long as train carriages, and come fully equipped with bars and seats facing one another as though you were in a hotel! In every city, skyscrapers extend upwards to heaven. Food portions are on a similarly monstrous scale: hamburgers stacked higher every year with great slabs of meat and cheese. And as the buildings and hamburgers expand, so too does the girth of the American people, with their swelling masses of bellies and behinds. Indeed, businesses are compelled to open clothing and shoe stores that cater for size XXXL!

Whilst in New York harbour I saw the Statue of Liberty, but I hardly cared for learning about the state of freedom in America, and by no means could I trust what a beautiful woman made of copper had to say! I was far more concerned with rooting out the cause of obesity in the US. My food journey took me to the small Italian quarter – the traditional Mafia stronghold. I did not recall any of the waiters in ‘Benito’, which I had frequented in the past, and nor did they recognise me; yet I remembered well the restaurant’s speciality dishes: fettuccine, langoustine crayfish and Ossobuco veal shanks. 

In Washington, the capital, the sheer corpulence of people made me lose my appetite, so I decided to investigate America’s new renown as a land of salads. A friend and I set off to a restaurant reputed for its salads. The table was beautifully adorned with vegetables of all varieties and colours, but unfortunately it was only the eye, and not the taste buds, which was stimulated by such a spread. The reason lies in the fact that the food industry in the US has become a vast production line, and the system of early harvesting and storage in refrigerators means that fruit and vegetables lose much of their taste. In addition, many kinds of fruit and vegetable in the US have disappeared, in favour of those more suitable for mass production: the red apple that seduces the buyer, even if its taste is nothing special; the carrots which have just one root, making life easier for packing machines.

Over in Philadelphia, I was asked by a friend of mine what I wished to eat for dinner, whereupon I informed him that, since coming to America, I had not tried the most famous dish in the land of the cowboy: the hamburger. So he took me to a stall where he had often gone to as a student: a modest place renowned for its beef sandwiches, which people ate standing. The food was delicious, and I found it incredibly difficult afterwards not to be disappointed by the offerings of the fast food restaurants, so famous for their hamburgers.  

Besides the hamburger, one also encounters in the US the phenomenon of the commercialisation of weapons, which can be purchased from the supermarket along with milk and bread. One of the Arabs living there even told me that he consistently received offers in the post for purchasing field artillery pieces and rocket launchers! For the duration of my visit I was not exposed to any dangerous incidents, but there were plenty of warnings against walking alone in the streets, and making absolutely certain that our doors were locked at night. Since the days of Al Capone, crime has enjoyed a Golden Age in America. Now, owing to the ease with which arms can be acquired, any mentally disturbed individual can begin a massacre of innocent people in a shopping centre, or in a school. However, this violence with which America, both as a country and as a people, tends to be associated does not really square with the fact that Americans are among the kindest people in the world, offering help to whomever should ask for it, and opening their hearts to every stranger.

I was certainly pleased to learn that tourists in Key West Island, south of Miami, were far more eager to visit the home of the deceased author Ernest Hemingway, than that of the former US president Harry Truman, the most imposing of the warriors, who dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There is still good in people.

From the window of the plane that took off from Miami, I cast one last glance at the land of the giants, feeling happy at the prospect of leaving it far behind. The time had come for the dwarf Gulliver to return to his people and to live in peace among them.

The food in Thailand is truly delicious – that is, if you can handle the spice of chilli peppers – although any visitor will at first be startled by the unappetising aromas which waft from the food carts of the street vendors! However, this is trifling in comparison with the notorious stench of sewage in Bangkok, a result of the alarmingly dangerous contamination of its river channels, producing a putrid smell that prevails throughout the city. To be more explicit, the river itself is a source of sewage, home to animal carcasses, rotting plants . . . ghastly!

Passers-by mingle with the stray dogs that roam the streets of Bangkok, each exhibiting a remarkable nonchalance: something that I simply could not puzzle out. In all my travels, never had I encountered a dog that did not arouse fear in the individual. Yet here in effect was a peace treaty concluded between dogs and humans, by which fear of the other was cancelled and each party attended to his own business, without interference. I waited for the green light to cross the road, side by side with men, women and a small elephant accompanied by its owner.

Yet Bangkok, the city of sewage and stray dogs, has set itself up as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The reality is that every day its airport welcomes vast numbers of tourists despite the objections of those who cannot bear the city’s awful stench. The reason is that for many, Bangkok provides the opportunity to confront a bizarre kind of sickness: unravelling the complexes observed by the Austrian doctor Freud a century before, through which he had uncovered the forces which control human beings, mostly unconsciously, making their lives a living hell because of their failure to satiate their lust for the opposite sex in a natural way.

Although sexual tourism is still thriving in Bangkok, in recent years the Thai people have successfully developed an even more prominent form of tourism: health services of the kind with which we are familiar, or rather unfamiliar, in our own countries. Indeed, huge numbers of Arabs are to be found in the hospitals and specialised medical clinics there. Many of them are from the Gulf countries: countries one would assume to be in a position to provide all the services required by their inhabitants.

A chance encounter brought me together with a member of the ruling family of Kuwait, and we entered the diagnostic centre of the hospital together. He vented his bitterness at the inadequacy of the health services in Kuwait and how he was obliged to come to Bangkok for treatment of an intractable problem. The truth is that my meeting with Abu Faisal in that wing of the American Hospital in Bangkok inspired in me an odd sense of democracy: here I was standing side by side with a son of the Sabah dynasty; equal victims in the face of the decline of health services in our native Gulf countries.

Located in the heart of Bangkok is the house of the American businessman Jim Thompson, now a major tourist attraction, which I took the opportunity to visit during my stay. The estate comprises a collection of traditional Thai wooden shacks, sourced from different regions of the country and renovated for showcasing to those visiting the capital. Such restoration projects succeeded in revitalising the specialist handicrafts that modern building techniques were rendering obsolete, and presented an indigenous aesthetic that dazzled the eye – regardless of the effects of erosion, and changing tastes and interests over the years. Moreover, Thompson is also to be credited for the development of Thailand’s silk industry.

In Thailand, the eyes of visitors are drawn to the beautiful girls as they go about their shopping in the malls, and as they lure in their massage clients. Yet the women who really captured my attention were those working on building sites, performing the same jobs as the men: joinery, mixing cement, laying slabs . . . This is not to mention the ‘angels of mercy’ in the hospitals: the nurses so versatile in their work, who never stop smiling. What I found most remarkable were the joyful expressions of the Thai men and women, in spite of the roughness and deprivation they must endure in their lives. Here was yet another puzzle that I was unable to solve: how could these people manufacture their happiness, when they had to contend with the burden of such great suffering?  

Kapunka! ‘Thank you’, is the word that is the secret to the gentleness and politeness of the Thai people. The taxi driver who shyly avoids your gaze when you talk to him; the hotel employee who respectfully presses his hands to his chest before addressing you. Smiles in Thailand never fade, and are bestowed freely upon you with no particular purpose, other than to express a sincere joy for life and for all its creatures.

For this reason, it would be a gross injustice to judge Bangkok solely on the stench of its river. Whilst the nose may suffer, the eye is most certainly satisfied with the most magnificent sights. Vast planes of green, more beguiling in their beauty than even the girls of Bangkok running after our cash! A greenness by which our thirsty trees are shamed. Indeed, our poor trees are forced to contend with a war on two fronts: the sand fired at them by the guns of our deserts, loaded by high winds; and the dust produced by the construction of buildings and infrastructure, relentlessly pursued even during our ‘lean years’. In our streets, I do not hear the contented rustling of trees, but rather their endless sobs of pain. In my own garden, I wage a long and hopeless war. With the coming of autumn, I would begin to inspect the trenches, counting the killed and wounded: my dead trees, and those whose leaves had dried up and were preparing to depart from this world. In this period, I would perform a treacherous operation against the beloved ones to whom I had bade farewell: before loneliness could overcome me, I would have already procured new seedlings to conceal their graves.

The most astonishing thing about the trees of Thailand is that they are everlasting in their tropical climate, for even when they do die, true to Buddhist belief their souls are eternally reincarnated . . .


Chiang Mai, northern Thailand

I asked the owner of the resort where I was staying: “Is it safe to walk in the garden?” The question may have seemed unjustified, as there were peacocks and other tame birds strutting without fear around the garden; and, were any danger to befall us, they would most certainly be at graver risk than we humans. My fear had stemmed from my reading that, due to recent torrential rain – the likes of which Thailand had not witnessed in years – a number of tigers and crocodiles had escaped from the zoo. There was no fencing between us and the surrounding forest to prevent tigers from attacking us, and the river split the resort in two, making me terrified that a crocodile might suddenly pounce on us if we walked too close to its banks. However, the proprietress reassured me with a confident smile that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

As I walked around the gardens surveying the trees and the shrubs, I was particularly drawn to some yellow flowers, from which wafted the most delicious fragrance. It was in amongst these flowers and the singing of small birds that I spotted a cloak dangling from the branch of a tree. As I got closer, I discovered that this cloak was actually the skin of a snake, which had been shed with the change of season. With this discovery, all the reassurances of the resort owner went out the window! I started to walk back cautiously, lest I trod on any other wild creatures, and when I reached the car park I saw a parrot tied to the branch of a tree with a piece of string. It started to sway joyfully as my arrival put an end to its solitude. Moving on from the parrot, I was startled by something I truly did not wish to see. For there, trying to conceal itself inside the engine of one of the cars, was a snake that shimmered with the most radiant colours. I managed to capture a photo of the snake with my mobile phone before it vanished. The driver of the car did not believe me when I told him, yet after seeing my photographic evidence he edged away from his car, white-faced with terror . . .

After this, I avoided wildlife tourism and instead decided to visit an enormous cave in the region. Yet the animals pursued me relentlessly. The cave tour guide was carrying a somewhat primitive lantern which did not quite illuminate the path, and in the darkness I stumbled over a huge snake that had been fossilized eons ago. When the guide lifted his lantern higher, I also encountered the fossils of an elephant and a crocodile close by me!  The cave tour, in which my ability to see and to breathe were equally impaired, lasted close on an hour. As I looked above to see how high the ceiling was, I was horrified by the black creatures which I saw hanging from it. There were thousands of them, this time real bats, not the fossilized kind! Once we had got back into daylight, we also found a number of dogs lying around outside the cave, waiting for someone to feed them. They were free creatures and yet they seemed so pitiful. Of what use is freedom, when you have nothing to eat?

After visiting the cave, my driver suggested that he take me to see an elephant parade, which I declined. How about a tiger display then? Again, I declined. A viper display? Certainly not! I could not bear to see living creatures being kept captive in cages just for my viewing pleasure. So I asked him: What about an orchid garden? A nod from the driver.

Close by the orchid garden there was a butterfly garden, enclosed with netting. Between the shrubs, slices of pineapple had been laid out for the butterflies. I wandered round the garden taking a few photos and then departed. I found it tragic that these butterflies, like the birds and animals, were being imprisoned merely for the amusement of mankind.

At least the orchid garden itself was a scene to behold: plants liberated from the earth, their roots dangling in the air. I perceived a similarity between the splendid form and colouring of the orchids and the wings of the butterflies I had seen, with their unique markings.

After a long day I finally returned to the resort, yet as I tried to get to sleep I was disturbed by a racket coming from within the room. It was mice, scampering above the ceiling. I promptly informed the receptionist that I wished to change my  room, but apparently all the bedrooms had been designed in such a way as to allow the mice to enter and leave at their convenience! The employee tried to reassure me, telling me not to be troubled by the mice since they would do me no harm. Finally, he picked up a device that he claimed would drive them away, but more likely it was designed to drive away the residents, for the mice began to make shrill squeaks of protest! I thus surrendered to my fate and attempted to get some sleep.

The incident with the mice reminded me of a story from my childhood, when I went with my mother to Doha to visit one of her acquaintances. We sat in a large room, the floor spread with huge cushions. With the women deeply engrossed in conversation that I could not follow, I occupied myself by surveying the various details of the room: the many windows and the wooden ceiling. Then, I was suddenly aware of something moving between the rafters. I prodded my mother and pointed to the ceiling, whereupon she shrieked: “A snake!” However, our friend just laughed at our terrified faces and said in Qatari dialect: “It’s a dab (snake), don’t be scared! It’s one of the residents of this house.”

I cannot help but observe how, at that distant time, there was in place a sort of peaceful coexistence between man and animals. Rather than threatening humans, snakes actually protected them from rats . . .


From the author’s  travel book Ghafwa inda al-Thi’ab

published by Dar Al-Ain, Cairo 2014


Published in Banipal 52 - New Fiction

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