We took a drive recently out to Dhaid, Sharjah’s inland town. The UAE’s inland towns are always worth a jaunt of a weekend. They’re there because many of the communities that populated the emirates were traditionally nomadic, with inland oasis towns and mountain settlements giving relief from the harsh life of the desert.
From April to September each year, the pearling season dominated the coastal economy and this, together with trading, meant each emirate’s principal town was coastal. But alongside these coastal towns, inland settlements thrived – often artificially irrigated by the complex and ancient aflaj system of boreholes and connecting tunnels that brought water down, for example, from Masafi to Dhaid.
These, alongside natural aquifers often flowing off the Hajjar mountains to provide deep water resources to nourish oasis towns such as Al Ain, led to the development of a number of important inland towns or settlements across what is now the UAE. So Abu Dhabi has Al Ain (and Liwa), Dubai has Hatta, Sharjah has Dhaid, Ajman Masfout and Manama and Umm Al Qawain has the inland town of Falaj Al Mualla.
Dhaid is some 60km inland from Sharjah, a straight drive through the desert past the concrete works of Saja’a and the Sharjah Desert Park, with the UNESCO Year of Culture Monument high on the sand dunes opposite the park’s greenery.
Today, as it pretty much always has been, Dhaid is something of a crossroads – turning right takes you down to Mleiha, an important archeological site with a fantastic little visitor centre, and then to Madam on the road to Hatta. Take a left out of Dhaid and you’re at Falaj Al Moalla within minutes – like Al Ain and Buraimi, the two inland desert towns are huddled together in the sandy landscape. Or you can strike out for the mountains, taking the eastern road up to Masafi, through Ajman’s inland enclave Manama (which used to have its own post office and stamps!) past the famous Masafi Friday Market and up to the coastal road which loops around from Masafi to Dibba, down the coast through Sharjah’s East Coast town of Khor Fakkan (Sharjah is the only emirate to have towns on the UAE’s eastern and western coasts) and then to Fujeirah.
It was on this road we came across a curious sight on the roadside. Passing the many ‘cold stores’ festooned with their blow-up toys and piles of cooking pots and terracotta jars and ornaments, we found a pile of what looked suspiciously like bee hives. And this was just, it turned out when we stopped for a snoop, what they were. Alongside the hives were mechanical honey extractors, like manual washing machines. The comb is placed in the extractor, the handle turned and centrifugal force pulls the honey from the combs to flow out through the funnel in the base.
We pushed aside the plastic flaps over the door and peered around in the gloom, our eyes adjusting from the glare outside. Here were Vimto bottles of dark ‘mountain honey’, much prized by Emiratis and costing anything up to Dhs300 a bottle. Here they were Dhs100. Bee keeper’s suits, smokers for quietening the bees and little packets of sugar fondant bee food were on the shelves.
The man in the shop was as amused by us as we were by him. Sure, everyone kept bees up here on the foothills of the Hajjar mountains. Would we like to buy a hive? Sarah’s father keeps bees back in Tipperary, so we were fascinated. How much for a hive? Dhs300, with Egyptian bees and a queen. That was a fraction of the cost of a hive ‘back home’. We bought an ‘Arab Bee Keeper’s Association’ branded suit for Pa back in Tipperary and took the man’s card just in case, one day, we decided to keep bees in our villa in Sharjah. We’re not so sure how the neighbours would feel about that one.
We left with many ma’salamas, tickled pink by the mental picture of bees walking like Egyptians and delighted with our direct-from-the-source bargain Vimto bottle of caramel-dark, unpasteurised and rich mountain honey.