This article originally appeared on VICE France.“I discovered this place online – I Googled something like, ‘The best spots to visit in Dubai’,” says Jason, a British expat in the Emirates, whom I met last November while wandering among some of the most majestic ruins I’ve seen in my life.
The place in question is Al Madam, an abandoned hamlet that forms part of a bigger village of the same name, located about an hour out of Dubai. Built in 1975, Al Madam has just about 12 homes, a mosque and the allure of mystery. Only about a decade after its construction, it was abruptly abandoned by its residents, leaving the buildings behind at the mercy of the desert.“I talked about it with some friends who are locals, but they didn’t want to visit because of the spirits who live here,” Jason says. “That just made me want to come have a look even more. I can feel a presence sometimes, but that could also just be in my head.”After its residents left, rumours of the paranormal soon ran rampant. Some say the town is home to jinns – supernatural spirits in the Arab world – who forced the residents out. Other tales place the blame squarely on Umm Al Duwais, a female jinn said to have cat eyes and machetes for hands, whose story is integral to Emirati folklore.
In 2018, the Sharjah Art Foundation tried to clarify the mysteries surrounding Al Madam and its history. The results of this research weren’t directly made public, but used to make a 2019 documentary dedicated to the site, The Landing.
Unfortunately, the original residents of these 12 homes could not be located. But according to testimonies by people living in the surrounding areas, the hamlet was built on a former Bedouin tent site in an effort to house nomadic groups during the country’s push towards modernisation. No one truly knows what exactly made the residents leave, but most of them resettled in other districts of Al Madam between 1982 and 1985. The most logical explanation attributes the residents’ departure to the area’s numerous – and sizeable – sandstorms. “Whenever there’d be a sandstorm, it would hit the area really hard,” said one man interviewed by the Sharjah Art Foundation back in 2018, who claimed his in-laws used to live in those homes. “When we left, scrap metal collectors came at night to steal doors and whatever metal they could get. They even stripped the mosque.”
So when exactly did the jinn theory start making the rounds? “No idea,” said another local in that same 2018 research. “You know, people take photos and make up all sorts of stories. No doubt some people started saying the place was haunted.”Noorhan, a local who manages a garage in a different district of Al Madam, said that tourism only really picked up five or six years ago. Around that time, a YouTuber – whose name he doesn’t recall – came by to make a video of the site. The video subsequently went viral. “When she put her stuff on YouTube and Google, telling ghost stories, everyone started coming to see the place,” Noorhan said. “Before that, there was nobody.”
Before the site became popular, it was far less accessible. Only locals came around to enjoy its awe-inspiring sights. “Before Dubai’s industrialisation, there was no road access to the village,” he said. “Back then, the locals would come over and stay two, three days, usually Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They’d camp out in the desert and sleep on the roofs.” According to Noorhan, authorities have apparently tried to block access to the site. He estimated this has been going on now for about five years, even though, on the face of it, there’s nothing actually preventing physical access to the village. “There were too many travellers coming and camping out here – most of them European,” he said. “Even now, you still see ten cars come by every day.”
For its part, the regional tourism organisation says tourists can and should keep visiting. "There are no plans to develop Al Madam as a tourist attraction at present, though tourists are welcome," a spokesperson for the organisation told CNN in 2020.Shahzai, the owner of a tourism agency in Al Madam, believes the village represents a great opportunity for the region’s entrepreneurs. As far as he’s concerned, it’s in the residents’ interest to preserve the town’s mystery. “There are a lot of articles everywhere about this ghost town,” he tells VICE. “It’s good for us because we can organise tours. It’s just a ten-minute drive.”
Shahzai says he absolutely believes in spirits and encouraged visitors to take a look for themselves. “They will not harm you,” he adds. “They stay away from humans. They’re always in the kind of places where the humans don’t go.”Despite living in the area for 22 years, Shahzai has never personally come across a jinn in the village. “I’ve seen things in my life,” he says, “just not in Al Madam – or not yet. But I can tell you this: the spirits will never tell you who they are, or who sent them. Spirits are liars.”Scroll down to see more pictures:
Correction: a previous version of this article stated the 12 original residents of Al Madam had passed. However, their whereabouts are presently unknown.