I’m on my way to an astronomy party, and I’m not sure what to expect. Huge telescopes? Scientific-looking men running around with binoculars? Hasan Ahmad Al Hariri, who runs Dubai Astrology Group, has arranged to meet me in a dark car park on the outskirts of Dubai. When I get there, he’s in a rush – ‘We’re very tight for time tonight,’ he explains – and directs me to a stranger’s car. A little hesitant with visions of being kidnapped, I get in, but my fear immediately abates as I see avid star-spotter Janet at the wheel. ‘Are you here for the meteor shower?’ she says. ‘The what?’ I ask. ‘Oh, you don’t know? You’re in for a treat tonight!’ she says with a grin.
The Dubai Astronomy Club meets most weeks, when there is a specific event lighting up the night sky or merely to gaze at planets. We follow Hasan in our car towards Sharjah and approach a lay-by, where two dozen jeeps are waiting with their hazard lights blinking. They slowly pull onto the road and we drive in convoy to a secret secluded location. ‘My sister doesn’t understand why I would come all the way out here in the dead of night to look at stars,’ says Janet. ‘But I love it. Right now, if you know what you’re looking for you can see Jupiter with the naked eye.’
We hit a dimly-lit, dusty road and head into nothingness. A few minutes later, the cars slow down and we arrive in the desert. About a hundred people emerge from their vehicles, all from different parts of the world, and all here for the stargazing. I hear snippets of Hindi, Arabic, English, French and Austrian around me as people begin to lay their blankets on the sand.
‘Welcome,’ says Hasan over a portable PA system. ‘The best way to see the show is to lie down.’ Equipped with a trusty pashmina, I get comfortable on the sand, surrounded by families, students and solo astronomers laid out like sardines on a monster picnic blanket. Hasan turns on a high-powered laser and starts pointing out constellations in the clear night sky. ‘This here is Orion,’ he says, ‘recognisable for his star-studded belt. But the main event tonight is a meteor shower, which is the debris of a comet, falling toward earth in this territory.’ Hasan sets up two 16-inch telescopes positioned to see a clear image of Jupiter and the moon’s craters. The atmosphere around me is like a mini music festival, with people offering soft drinks, tea and coffee, while wandering over to the telescopes throughout the evening for a glimpse.
The crowd suddenly erupts into whoops and screams; I look up to see the end of a meteor shooting across the sky like a firework. Everyone is grinning, their white teeth shining in the darkness, emotions running high. ‘Did you see that? Did you see it?’ resonates around me in chorus.
Craving more, we wait and chat. There’s something about the sky that makes us come over all philosophical. ‘Stargazing makes you simultaneously insignificant and important,’ says one reveller. ‘We’re so small, yet so connected to the universe.’ Boom. A star spits across the sky, continuing its fiery journey for several seconds, and the crowd screams as though the UAE has just won the World Cup.
Hasan himself is particularly excited. He started practising astronomy when he was 14 and now gets to do it full-time at the permanent centre being erected at this site. ‘Portacabins will arrive tomorrow in this exact location, and will be the first part of a permanent year-round activity centre, due to open in January,’ he says. ‘There is no membership fee – everything is free of charge – but people are welcome to invest in the centre for the love of astronomy.’
Dubai Astronomy Group will also be running courses for a small fee, and anyone is welcome to participate, including schools. ‘The activity centre aims to do sky surveying, to try to find new asteroids and continuously observe,’ says Hasan. ‘It will be an important investment for the future.’