4. Fleeing the Desert: The Archipelago of the Wet Gulf

Ahmad Makia

The day I found myself in a fish tank was when I conducted a study on the emotional behaviour of grouper fish in the Persian Gulf. After several weeks of observation, I identified that some grouper fish bow their heads down to point at each other. They make these signals when encircling a targeted prey to strategically orchestrate battle, recruit hunting partners, and then serve dinner. This study on grouper fish is significant because pointing, a major intellectual and cognitive gesture, has only been observed in humans and verified in some great apes and ravens.

I dedicated my life to the sea for two reasons. Once I had a dream that I sliced a fish’s stomach and found a book inside. Secondly, after graduating from school, I left home with no imparted or cultivated knowledge of my ‘native’ environment. You might or might not be surprised to know that in the UAE, where I’m from, most of us don’t learn about our local flora, fauna, fruits, minerals, botany, kingdoms, hunters, peoples. Rather, our sense of geography and history is an accumulation of many other places and faces. Till today, we have very little consensus on what we consider our environmental culture or ‘natural history’. We grew up knowing of falcons, gazelles, horses, peacocks (and camels of course!), but these are species favored, bred, imported, and collected by local enthusiasts, mainly as leisure and sport. So, for me, it became necessary that this information was corrected and adjusted. But how?

After several years of honing my interests in intervertebral paleontology, I was awarded a grant for researching ocean dispersal histories in the Peninsula region. We conducted this study through careful examination of proximal waterways: the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Mandab, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (via Suez Canal into the Red Sea).

My fieldwork in the Gulf coincided with the emergence of a new frontier for biogeographers: we know nothing. With the rise of genomic studies, the Pangea’s distribution of the world’s continents and organisms was called into question and eventually ruled as an artificial phenomenon. It turns out we did not become separated by water as previously thought. Rather, the water in-between lands emerged as its own biophysical space (with its own history and duration), which then complicated universalized understandings of organism distribution across earth. This, especially, because evolutionary history can no longer be marked by a singular geological event.

So, today, biogeographers still cannot fully grasp how  animals and organisms become distributed the way they are today. How did monkeys from Africa get to South America? How did lemurs colonize Madagascar? Water bodies separating the continents have become literal-landscape representations of the leak in our understandings of society, ecology, mobility, and evolution. Therefore, it has become of great importance for peers and practitioners within evolutionary history to encourage daring and creative methodology. Ocean dispersal process is one of them.

In light of all this, I began with projecting the present into the past within my own fieldwork. In the Gulf, I cannot historically pinpoint a source of ecological origin because places like the Gulf tell you origins don’t exist anyhow. Rather, it shows how roots have taken on too many dangerous metaphors.



My research shows something different altogether. Ocean dispersalism in the Gulf descends from an island-cluster. I imagine them to be an archipelago of vegetational log mats that were expelled by a catastrophic flood event; biblical, fantastical, and academic literature have implied to the nature of this mat. On these mats existed several life forms, which in their new adrift state, developed in various ways. These mats varied in ecological size and scale. They married and circulated along Gulf waters for several millennia. Parts of the floating vegetation mats became beached along varying locations of what I’ll call the Blue Belt, the land rims harboring and sharing Gulf water. When parked on a new land frontier, the mats stay to advance a greater ecological interaction between its nutrients and the new plateau. These mats, I believe, comprise the biological underpinnings of the coastal Gulf identity.

The island of Bahrain is the most representative simulation for what a vibrant ecological Gulf log mat might have looked like. Also, the geo-formation of Bahrain indicates that this mat was bountiful enough to autonomously take root in water, meanwhile, other mats percolated into the continental landmass of the Peninsula. Ocean dispersalism in the Gulf habitats also shows that the island-cluster could have also formed some surfaces in the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion Island, the state of Kerala in India, Sri Lanka, Comoros Islands, and Zanzibar. (There also possible bridges into the Pacific, but this would need its own observatory.)

This habitat becomes visible when you inspect the urban nature of coastal Gulf cities, which are very self-enclosed but wildly sufficient within; like islands or ships. What this might mean is that these log mat habitats cannot persevere that far away from the shore, or from their ‘island mentality’, as biological interactivity ceases the further you move away from Gulf waters.

Secondly, very little from the adjacent hinterland is used for agrarian self-sufficiency, or as colonies of new species, rather, there is only some forms of nomadism and industry. This kind of development indicates two things. It could be that this log mat ‘stationing’ is rather recent since very little ecological and agricultural variety has developed in the interior. Secondly, Gulf cities are in a deep struggle with their beaching fortune, especially for organisms, as the insides of their new hinterland are both unfavorable and inhospitable for expansion, which is a tendency of most living things. (It is also possible that migration in land might have caused previous animal and organism death or extinction and thus associated with risk.)

The Creek Expansion project in Dubai, today, hints at this ecological heritage, where the terrain continues drifting and coasting across the water rather than eternally docking to a landmass. Dubai, within this marine constellation, is not just an imagined island but a literal one too: a place that shifts location, geographically fluctuates, is set apart.

The island, as a material form, is understood to be an elusive or amphibian-like geographic zone; a conceptualization it inherited from the geologic enterprise which treats the island as a landscape with high susceptibility for disappearance through flooding. This biological outsider-ness of islands is not dissimilar to Gulf landscapes as both mediate in terrains that do not descend from continental monolithic thinking.



This sense of islanding is also represented in metaphors of the Gulf as non - East or non - West, very rich and very poor, bleak unforgiving nature versus hyper industrious modernity. But the island, in this case, should not be identified as ecological loss but as place of transgression. This we see with Gulf polity which has evolved to become representatives of a kind of Third World-ness. And by Third World-ness, I am not ranking it as if within a hierarchy, but only allegorically. Third identities in species of some environments have developed to become organized terrains for demanding resource, i.e. economic, and cultural recognition. Socially, this is also mimicked, with the Third World international position now evolved to the status of empowered, rich, and ruling societies who would’ve been otherwise discredited within the myopia of US / Soviet political geography. These are concreted efforts for the inhabitation of a ‘Third’ ecozone, in a face off with a Western institution that would’ve treated this zone as poverty-stricken, tropical, non-Caucasian, and post-colonial but under Western rule. This identify fluctuation evolves from Third World as territorial bypass to a new, creative space resisting the lack of acknowledgment for ecologic frontiers.

Why I am proposing forms of ecological Third-ness, is because the Gulf is demanding new conceptions of ecological space altogether. Gigantic and absurd urban development might appear like a very anxious relationship with the environment, but what the organization and distribution of elements in the Gulf say is that they all work to destabilize the conception of the environment as we know it. If the log mat can withstand a desert terrain along with a metallic hydro-slopes made of snow kept at 0 degree C throughout the year, then it means that when we address the ecological nature of the Gulf, we need to be as inventive as the built landscape.

Phase two of the research is the Gulf tongue, a restaurant exploring local attitudes and tastes for varying island culinaries. Stomach will be the third, and like this we go.



Ahmad Makia is a geographer from Dubai. He writers about Gulf landscapes, wet matters and sex. He also makes books with friends and employers.

[1] Wet Gulf, Map 1 by Ahmad Makia

[2] Scanned sketchbook page from Al-Amin Landscape Company

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