The garden and the desert

Here at the American University of Sharjah at the southern tip of the Persian Gulf, a pair of green Amazon parrots have made their home on the roof of the administration building. When I walk outside the university gates these sunset winter evenings, flocks of green parrots circle round and round the fountains and palm trees, their long tails elegant, their plumage a soft chartreuse in the fading light. Ten or 20 years ago, when the oil boom was first in full swing, they must have been brought here as pets, birds in cages to be taught to talk. But someone set them free, or they escaped. Now, free from whatever preys on parrots, they soar and swoop, delighted, in the twilight.

The birds have come from all over, all the migratory birds of western Asia: larks, finches, quail, bee-eaters, wagtails, and magpies. They are Old World birds that I read about in storybooks when I was growing up. Now I'm seeing them for the first time. There are new ones every year, a student tells me. The little blue bee-eaters weren't here last year.

The government has ordered the planting of palm trees and grass and flower beds around the university and along the highways. They are building huge parks in the middle of the city, all irrigated with desalinated water. The plants have seeds and host insects, and birds come to eat them. It is the reverse of the ecological disaster that development so often brings. The place is going to the birds. This is the greening of the United Arab Emirates.

Or is it? Out my front window, grass grows in a neatly trimmed lawn, and Indian gardeners tend beds of coleus and marigolds. Along the street to my office, bougainvillaea have been planted in the sand, and every day I see a gardener watering each of the plants individually and then washing the sweat from his face and neck with the same irrigation water. Above him, on the floodlights over the newly installed basketball hoops, a family of birds called Indian Rollers has nested, birds with amazingly bright blue wings and the truculent voices and manners of jays. Unlike most of the other birds here, they are native to the area, despite their name. Or at least they have been here so long that it no longer matters. After all, ships have sailed back and forth across the Indian Ocean since before the days of Sinbad. I suppose this place has been horticulturally multicultural for so long that the animal and human life just followed naturally.

But the view out my back window tells a different story. Sand dunes, partially stabilized with acacias and salt grass, still contain enough loose sand to swirl across highways when the wind blows hard from inland. Camels and goats graze on the rough grass. A month ago, hiking back among the dunes, I saw a palm-frond hut that looked exactly like the one in the natural history museum, the sort of hut, the caption said, that Emiratis used to live in only a generation ago. I suppose it was just a temporary shelter for goatherds. Or perhaps it was abandoned long ago. If it were farther inland, along the wadis, I'd guess it was still inhabited.

It won't be there much longer. For the last week, I've watched men with flags in dune buggies crawl over the sand. The bulldozers will come next. Whatever is built, I'm sure, will be tastefully landscaped. And yet something will be lost.

My students sometimes mention this sense of loss. Development has brought so many foreign workers that they now outnumber the Emiratis. The shopping malls and skyscrapers of Dubai and Sharjah could be in Singapore or Los Angeles. The development sometimes seems imported, transplanted like the marigolds and zinnias. One girl wrote about being in a mall with her mother and realizing that they were the only Emiratis there. The salesgirls were Filipinas and Indonesians, the shopkeepers Indians and Pakistanis, and their fellow shoppers Europeans and Americans. "All of this development is really very nice," she wrote, "and I have nothing against these guest workers. But sometimes I have a thought that is not so nice. I wonder, 'When will these people go back home? When will I feel that this is my home again?' "

And yet, the previous life here was of hardship and uncertainty. Who could be nostalgic for poverty and early death? The development is as intelligent as I have ever seen, the gardens as lovely as those of European palaces. I suppose a wildness has been lost, a wildness and a knowledge of being rooted in one's history. But what is history, after all, but the story of change? In the meantime, the parrots are free to turn the gardens of the university into the Amazon jungles of their dreams until they become as native as the Indian Rollers.

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