Abu’l Shalaan and I entered the enclosure to see the skittish oryx up close as they were being fed. Their long javelin-like horns and docile manner gave them an almost mythological appearance. I felt like I was gazing upon the distant cousin of a unicorn. Perhaps it was seeing them inside a fenced enclosure, rather than in open habitat, that made it feel as though the headier days at Shaumari, when the species was pulled back from the brink of extinction, were now long gone.
Only 30 of the oryx remain at the reserve (out of a revived world population of several thousand), along with two ostriches, a few gazelle and onagers, a sort of Asian donkey. Though the animals are of interest, the original impetus of the reserve now felt somewhat lost. And when Abu’l Shalaan introduced me to his former colleagues, including his replacement, they appeared more like basic caretakers charged with upkeep, rather than the pioneering wildlife officers he described from his days there. Nonetheless, they were more than welcoming, and we all sat together and shared tea and a water-pipe into the early evening, as they and Abu’l Shalaan exchanged gossip.
During the discussion, which inevitably touched upon old times, I saw Abu’l Shalaan disappear into the recesses of his memory. By the look on his face, he seemed to be reaching back many years. Later, when I asked him how he felt about being back at Shaumari, he gave me a bit of a pained look, shrugging his arms in a fashion that seemed to ask: “What can I do?” He opened up moments later. “It can be hard when the best days of your life seem behind you,” he said. Yet, after a long ponderous moment, his mood sweetened. Shrugging off the gloom, he added optimistically, almost matter-of-factly, with a smile: “Allah Kareem.” God is generous.