Famous places and landmarks have a knack for creeping into our psyche. It's easier because of ubiquitous social media these days. We bask in the glory of those landmarks, and then proudly project them onto the distant admiring souls whose goal in life becomes to visit them at any cost.
Such is the power of landmarks that they immediately make their way into Instagram and our bucket lists. We often identify a place by them. But then, there are many invisible ones that quietly lay themselves bare to the most curious few. They are often the hidden gems mostly undisturbed and unspoiled.
Al Faya is one such place, tucked in relative obscurity in a sun-drenched valley surrounded by rocky hills and occasional sand dunes. Hidden in plain sight in the barren desert of Sharjah, UAE, she only beckons those who go the extra mile to appreciate music, or have the uncanny ability to chill in nothingness.
On my numerous visits to Dubai, I had immersed myself in her charm in the form of food, landscape, and culture, but Al Faya awakened me to a unique appeal.
She is not a landmark to fall for perhaps, but she surely is a popular haunt for a small clientele willing to go for an unspoiled gem. To enjoy the ambience steeped in music and nature, they flock routinely to her.
I chanced upon her while talking to my wife's well-versed niece who thought it'd be nice to spend an evening there on our way back from Hatta where we paddle-boated in a charming mountain lake and had a delicious lunch. Al Faya, she insisted, would be a refreshing dessert to top it all off.
So, we took a detour to slip into the small roads and towns in search of her. Few small highways and minutes of anticipation later, we spotted her at a nondescript place. No big signs bothered to greet us.
It was rather an uneven dirt road - good for digestion of food - off a highway leading to the gated entrance. Perhaps she only wanted to be discovered by the most zealous, making an effort to find her.
We drove through a small gate into a vast openness, shrouded from outside. It was as if a new sandy world opened up with all her precious offerings for the chosen few who came looking for her.
To my surprise, I saw a carefully maintained green patch of grass on the premises, a stone's throw from the gate. It had goal posts on each side. Perhaps occasional soccer or even polo was also a part of her story.
The first thing that greeted us was the music, blaring from the powerful speakers placed at vantage points. The mild afternoon sun's last rays were presiding over the last-minute preparations to raise the curtains on the desert stage for the evening show.
I spoke to the folks manning the controls. They hailed from different countries and came together in their love for music. Every prior visitor had jockeyed for space on a white board placed nearby to become immortal in this divine setting.
I knew my scribbled name would be wiped out one day from that board, but my soul would continue to relish oneness with her forever. As I started walking toward the hills, I could see a red pre-fabricated café in the distance, and recliners laid out in an orderly fashion on each side, facing a circular makeshift stage.
Almost everything was red, the recliners, the café, and the stage except some white tables. Red resembled the lifeblood that flowed through the veins of Al Faya, and carried everyday stories of joy and appreciation, and white, the serenity of the place.
The laser lights were mounted on the lower slopes of the hills behind the café to project multi-colored light beams onto the hills and the night sky during the evening show. I struck up a conversation with the affable gentleman working his shift.
Turns out, the café was named 'Not a Space'. This hang-out was one of the creative initiatives of 'Not a Space', the cafe chain in the UAE, to offer a unique experience to the music and nature lovers. The café offered drinks, desserts, sandwiches and some souvenirs.
Its logo containing three dots was visible on the café, furniture, and other installations. This, I was told, was a winter pop-up, usually abuzz with more aficionados and musicians on weekends. Winter alright, but it wasn't really a weekend. Although that dampened my spirits, I still craved the coming to life of the desert in laser lights.
Lemonade in hand, the philosopher in me reclined to feel the pulse of the place with eyes closed for a few imaginative moments. It was like engaging in 'Niksen', a Dutch term related to wellness for liberation from stress. It means doing nothing and letting the mind wander about aimlessly. I needed that reflection to imagine freely to soak up the atmosphere.
The soft music alternating between English and Arabic, wafted through the air, and I segued into another world to feel her. So much so, that only a loose and ferocious German Shepherd running at everything brought me back to reality.
Panicked, I jumped. I quickly checked my pants for any possible embarrassment. Toilet facilities on site were great there and I had extra clothing. But luckily, I was dry.
Dying afternoon's crimson hue slowly spread before dusk, the sun resigned, and the ground-mounted red lights came on to take over. As drinks started to flow and folks started to pour in to get all settled down, she began to spring to life to the rhythm of music and dancing laser lights.
It was a makeover that lifted her up from the lifelessness of the afternoon into the vibrance of the illuminated evening. She had saved her best for me all this time. I was so overwhelmed that I fired up my camera for vlogging, as if she desperately needed an awe-struck narrator to extol her unsung virtues. I wondered about an impressed lover eager to court her.
As cold darkness descended, a fire dancer came on with a bang and lit up the stage with his spectacular skills to the music while red ground lights around eagerly focused on him. The music resonated with the soul of the place while criss-crossing laser beams flirted with the stars above as if to beam up details of this festive tale as far as possible.
Every bit of passion whipped up from the sand grains gave off a vibe of a wedding in a hologram before me between her and the lights laced with music. I could read the stories of the pent-up emotions and desires hidden in every grain.
Having played a few tricks on stage, he came to each of us with his fire wicks to dance around us. It was a warm tickle of her grateful hospitality toward her distinguished guests in a now cooling breeze.
Al Faya became one with the music, the lights, and the appreciative souls in a full bloom. As he played his tricks around me, I felt a deep belonging to the combination of pristine nature and an artistic human effort to present her beauty.
A few creative minds did wonders to elevate her to stardom that she fully deserved. There was no tomorrow for me. Yes, I missed out on live music performance, but I was up, close, and personal with a uniqueness.
I tuned out the world and melted with her. I wanted to get to know her, one grain at a time, no matter how long it took. She would never be depleted the next morning because of the promise of another lovely evening, and then another one.