A Mud Fort – and Firearms

This is one of the forts in Al Ain–the Al Hilli Fort, if I remember correctly. These forts are made of mud bricks and are not ancient. Most of them are twentieth century structures, at least in their present form. Until about the middle of the century, they were in use. Sheikhs kept small garrisons in them, and they were used as bases for tribal fighting, which was nearly constant–Wilfred Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands” is a good source on this, as is TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”–but not very costly in terms of men killed. And although most westerners find the idea of tribal warfare quaint and primitive, particularly as its causes were usually raiding or honour, only men were killed, unlike in our wars, which kill mostly civilians, especially women and children. In Stoning the Devil, Badria’s father is a Bedouin tribesman who is supposed to have killed members of a rival tribe, the Bani Yas, with a British rifle, a Royal Enfield .303. These guns were in great demand after the First World War. Tribal guns are still easy to come by in the antique shops of the Emirates. Most are poor quality Turkish and Arab weapons, with short barrels, not very accurate or powerful. 

Nowadays, in the Emirates, tribal affiliations are much less important, and men are not armed in everyday life. In Oman, on the other hand, which is a little more traditional, the men still wear the khanjar, or curved dagger, in their belts, though more for show than anything. The best ones had ivory handles. I own one with a handle of cow horn, and silver scabbard. It’s antique, but not very old–probably only sixty or seventy years old. In Yemen, men wear not only daggers and swords, but carry automatic weapons too; this is a necessity there, where tribal warfare continues and the political situation is still unstable. It’s strange to think that Rimbaud was an arms dealer there, in Aden on the coast, not much more than a hundred years ago, living with a slave. The way of life in the Gulf was essentially medieval up until the 1950s, when slavery and tribal warfare were still practised in Oman and what is now the Emirates (then the Trucial States) as well. But now cars have replaced camels as emblems of manhood, and in most of the Gulf, with the exception of Yemen, the men are peaceful, and life is much less than dangerous than it is in the United States, where it seems a lot of men still feel that they must own a gun or their manhood is threatened. I find it odd that westerners persist in regarding Arab countries as uncivilized, when in some ways they are more civilized than ours. Students have been shot dead on the university campus where I work, for instance, which would be unthinkable in the UAE. And although the women’s campus of UAE University looked rather like a prison, with its high walls and security at the entrances, the guards were not armed, unlike the police on the university where I work.