BOOKWORM: A land changed by oil money

“Diamond in the Desert” by Jo Tatchell, c. 2010, Black Cat, $14.95, 304 pages.

“Diamond in the Desert” by Jo Tatchell, c. 2010, Black Cat, $14.95, 304 pages.

Can you ever go home again? In the new book “Diamond in the Desert” by Jo Tatchell, idyllic childhood memories are replaced by blunt realities.

Back in the early 1970s, when she was just a toddler, Jo Tatchell’s father accepted a position as manager of a British company’s new Middle Eastern supermarket. He moved his family to the sleepy village of Abu Dhabi, where revenues were just beginning to flow in with oil.

The population of Abu Dhabi was about a thousand souls then and most of the villagers made their livings in the way their ancestors did: as fishermen, camel traders and pearl divers. Tatchell remembers picnics in ever-blowing sand dunes and waving to Abu Dhabians in their sanbuks on the water.

When she was a teenager, Tatchell’s parents sent her back to Great Britain and school. She rarely returned to the sand, the souks, or Abu Dhabi.

So when her brother called her to tell her about a surprising cultural development being planned, Tatchell began to think about Abu Dhabi again. She needed to see what had become of it.

She was dismayed at what she found.

Barasti huts made of palm fronds had been replaced by blinding-white skyscrapers. The once ever-present sand that settled into every crease and cranny was miraculously absent. Even wooden sanbuks were replaced by yachts. Big money, designer fashions, and fancy vehicles had come to Abu Dhabi, along with a kind of cultural amnesia: many young Abu Dhabians are unaware that their lifestyles are different than what had been lived just two generations prior.

Without a doubt, “Diamond in the Desert” makes you want to go back about 40 years in time to visit the Abu Dhabi of old. Tatchell’s wistful descriptions of the sands, the quiet way of life, even the pristine waters are so relaxing that you can almost hear voices in the souk and the call to prayer at ancient mosques.

But then the dirham flips, and Tatchell writes about a quickly-growing city in which possessions have new meaning but ancient tribal allegiances are strong. Though foreigners are welcome, there is an underbelly. Tatchell weaves a bit of danger in this part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-cultural study which, despite that it delves into history that is sometimes a little hard to follow, makes it an alluring read.

If you’re curious about Middle Eastern culture you’ll want this book. “Diamond in the Desert” is definitely worth a look.

Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.

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