When I was told that a local character named Ahmed al-Shalaan—who, as I mentioned, was more popularly known as Abu’l Shalaan (“Abu’l” means “father of” in Arabic)—would be my driver and guide, I had no idea I would have as my chaperon a local dignitary whose life and origins were so intricately tied to the region I was exploring. His quiet and courteous manner, built upon a solid edifice of Bedouin honour, belied a comical streak and gregarious nature. Always decked out in crisp, spotless khakis and baseball cap, this 53-year-old former nature reserve manager has lived through some of the most difficult years in al-Azraq’s long history. And like many Bedouin his age and older, Abu’l Shalaan’s life has straddled the often turbulent divide between tradition and modernity. “I’ve been around for decades and I’ve seen what this place used to be,” Abu’l Shalaan told me, with a touch of melancholy, as we strolled along a wooden bridge over parched earth. “It’s a complete tragedy.”
For thousands of years, Azraq Oasis was known far and wide for its huge abundance of water. Not only were the life-giving pools and mudflats of this strategically located oasis important for the sustenance of both settled and nomadic peoples in the region, but it also provided a haven for migratory birds that used the area as a pit-stop for flights between Asia and Africa. The oasis’s legendary waters (from which Azraq, meaning “blue” in Arabic, derives its name) were so famed that migrants from nearby regions travelled there to start new lives. Both Chechens from the Russian Caucasus, and Druze peoples from present-day Syria and Lebanon, flocked to Azraq in the early 20th century to escape persecution in their home countries. They are Azraq Oasis, Desert Wetland and Wildlife Reserve communities that endure to this day. Life in al-Azraq was once idyllic.