Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi looked like this:
The key feature of this landscape? Sand.
Green, green, green. If you look closely, every tree and flower has a little hose coiled at its root; hoses run under every lawn and green space. Forget the oil industry: if you want in on a lucrative franchise, get in on the hose industry.
Irrigation systems use reclaimed wastewater; tap water uses desalinated water from the Gulf–and none of these processes are very ecologically friendly. It’s a desert: it’s not meant to be lush and green. The greening of this desert island strikes me as a supreme exercise of human will: we want green space and so, voila, green!
Our new rental house, which we moved into in June, was built as part of a new development just outside downtown Abu Dhabi. The development got plopped onto a parcel of land that looks like that first photo: flat and sandy as far as you can see. The desert here isn’t the undulating dune scape of the Empty Quarter or Liwa, where the dunes gleam orange. This is desert as lunar landscape: dun-colored, flat, scrubby.
Our house came with a little backyard, a “garden,” as the Brits call it. The garden looked like this when we moved in:
It felt a lot like our house had been set down in the middle of a big ash tray.
We started having grass fantasies, people. Not the wacky grass but the other kind. The kind with dirt and ants and tickley bits on your toes; I wanted jasmine and frangipani. Before I moved out here, I’d spent the last twenty-five years or so living in apartments–high-rises, low-rises, tenements–with no backyard, no green space at all, other than the flowerpots perched on my window sills.
So I chucked my environmental worries out the window and waded through the bureaucracy of the management company: Fill out the form on A4 paper. A3 paper. Fax it. Email it. Get a signature. No, a different signature. No, three more signatures. List the flowers you’re using. List how much water your irrigation system will use. More signatures. A3 paper, please.
A plan was made, a price agreed, and work began. First? “Sweet sand” got poured on top of our existing…what? Bitter sand?
And then bricks were put down on one side to make a little patio. No cement, just pounding the bricks into a tightly locked pattern. Then we got our own set of hoses to criss-cross the yard and wind along the sides, where we wanted flowers.
After the hoses were in place, the guys unrolled big carpets of grass, dug pits for the plants and set the little drip-spigots next to each root bed, and then? Hey presto, it’s a little suburban backyard, like I live in LA or something. Or Scottsdale.
In my ecological defense, the irrigation system runs for about 9 minutes in the morning and again at night: it just can’t be using that much water, right?
I know it’s contrary, to have a garden in a climate like this one; I should have done something with rocks and zen rakes and little bonsai trees, maybe a few bent twigs.
But frankly? In the morning, when I sit outside before the day’s heat kicks in, and I smell the frangipani and the jasmine and the now-exotic scent of wet grass? It’s pretty blissful. I’m fresh out of pretty maids, but I’m thinking the next time I go to the plant souk, I should look for some silver bells and cockle shells.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.