Abu Dhabi - Sand Trap, by David Hogg (1972)

When we arrived in Abu Dhabi from the Philippines in 1972 it was a bit of a culture shock. It was wintertime and therefore cool – cold by comparison with Manila. And there was sand, white sand, everywhere. Sitting in an air-conditioned office, you could well imagine that you were looking out at a snowscape.

At that time in Abu Dhabi there were only two tarmac roads. The shopping and suburban streets were ‘Sabka’, made by wetting and rolling the saline sand into a hard crust. Sabka roads are perfectly serviceable except when – once in a blue moon – there is a heavy rainstorm or when the surface is accidentally broken. Once the crust is broken, it is nibbled away by traffic, and an area of soft white sand develops as a trap for unwary drivers.

There was one such hazard in the back road that led to our house and garage. It was a sand trap that would not have been out of place at St Andrews. We were briefed about this hazard by our predecessors.

We were also briefed about the ‘pi-dogs’ that roamed the residential streets. The word conjures up something mangy and unattractive, but many of the Abu Dhabi strays were quite appealing. They seemed to have a lot of Saluki in them; slender elegance, pale smooth coats, long, sensitive faces and dark, lustrous eyes. But we were warned not to feed them, otherwise they would haunt your area – and they were a health hazard.

One night early in my stay, I was called out late to the airport. As I drove in the dark along the back lane, I was very conscious of the sand trap ahead. I rehearsed what I had been told about driving through soft sand – get into low gear, keep going at a steady pace, don’t brake! Sure enough, my headlights soon reached the area of soft white sand.

They also picked out two shining eyes just beyond the sand trap; a young pi-dog sitting quietly in the middle of the road. I stopped for a moment, hoping the dog would move on. But the puppy did not seem to be conscious of danger. He sat, just looking cute, as if hypnotised by the headlights. After a few minutes of this stand-off, I decided to drive on. Surely self-preservation would prevail and he would move as I approached. So, low gear, steady revs, and soon I was on my way, feeling that gliding, boat-like motion of moving over soft sand. I was steadily bearing down on the dog and still he didn’t move. At the last moment I lost the contest of wills, braked and was well and truly ditched.

So, here I was, late at night in pitch darkness, bogged down in a back lane. My efforts to drive out only sank the car deeper into the mud.

I was beginning to feel desperate when three young Arab men in European dress appeared out of the gloom. They spoke good English and offered to help. I gladly accepted, and soon they were busy around and under the car, digging around the back wheels by hand, packing in stones and bits of wood. They were chattering all the time in Arabic, and seemed happy with the challenge.

As time went on – it must have been at least fifteen minutes – I began to feel guilty at letting them do so much, but they certainly knew what they were doing. Finally they gave me the signal and I drove carefully out of the sand with the three helpers heaving at the back.

Once on firm ground, I stopped and thanked them profusely. Much hand-shaking all round! I wondered whether I should give them some money for their efforts. But as my hand strayed to my wallet, one of my rescuers stopped me and said, “No, thank you,. no money. We’re Palestinians!”

This was my first encounter with the courtesy and helpfulness of the Arab man-in-the-street. And it made me start thinking again about the Palestinians, who at that time had a poor reputation in the outside world. As for the dog, he had disappeared and I was left with the lesson, “Never try to bluff an Abu Dhabi pi-dog!”

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