The hustle and bustle of our modern life little allows us to establish a true contact with Nature, this is why sometimes we desperately feel the need of that something ancestral that we know exists but can hardly catch.
This was, in a nutshell, my frame of mind when I booked my ticket to the United Arab Emirates. I wanted to see by myself how a country can combine the most luxurious experiences and still manages to keep its oldest traditions. The ever-evolving Abu Dhabi Emirate proved to be the right choice.
The first impact staring at shiny skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and flashy shopping malls is one of astonishment, especially when catching a fleeting glimpse of the lithesome figures of local women, all spruced up in their traditional abayah and carrying shopping bags from Valentino, Gucci, Chanel with absolute nonchalance. But this was not what I was looking for. I was bent on going local, eating like a local, living like one.
Since 1971, when the seven Emirates officially became the United Arab Emirates, led by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, first President of the UAE and first ruler of Abu Dhabi, the winds of change have relentlessly blown over this huge desert that still now constitutes most of the territory, as if Nature is still trying to reclaim what she could. There is something timeless in those desert landscapes, and the effect given by the unfolding panorama is one of bedazzlement. It’s inevitable, it captures you completely.
Our safari, booked with Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Adventures Tours, counted fifteen 4×4 Land Cruisers. The meeting point was the Fairmont Hotel and from there we made our way towards adventure. Forty-five minutes drive separated us from the ancestral traditions of a country that is making the whole world talk about its sudden modernization and state-of-the-art architecture. Don’t get me wrong here: local Emiratis are undoubtedly pleased with their glamorous lifestyle, but they remain very proud of their roots and, as soon as they can, they reach those boundless landscapes to be in familiar surroundings.
I knew since the beginning that the first activity of our safari program was dune driving, but in my naive mind, I thought we would only be the spectators of the show.
Wrong: we were the show.
Each group belonged to a car, and when we reached the right spot local drivers prepared the vehicles for the tours partially deflating the wheels, to ensure a better road holding in those windless sandy mountains. The air was dry but less stifling than in the city, and it tasted of stone. Seldom pieces of vegetation populate the forsaken, yet bewitching view, and the skyline was barely detectable against the far border. If I closed my eyes, I could sense the calm beneath that infinite monochromatic land and feel close to legendary nomads such as Islam’s greatest traveller, Moroccan Ibn Battutah, who had walked along those sun-struck paths hundreds of years before me.
When I acknowledged that we were supposed to be in the car for the dune driving I tried to babble some lame excuse of the likes “But I want to take pictures of the cars!” “We will stop at some point, and you’ll have the opportunity to take photos of the cars behind us,” retorted our driver, seemingly used to such last-minute endeavors of retreat.
We got on the car, I sat in the middle row, and the race started: up and down the sandy dunes, running on two wheels along the razor-sharp pinnacles, or vertically most of the time when we were heading downwards. We went on this way for about ten minutes, then we stopped, our stomachs upside down, and then back again on track for other ten minutes. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to take any picture, as I was too busy grabbing any handle within my reach.
The organizers, however, knew full well that this is a spectacular show and that most people don’t want to waste this unique opportunity to capture such adrenaline moments. So, after being the actors, we were kindly allowed to enjoy one of the highly-trained drivers live up to his reputation and flaunt his skills up and down the gigantic dune in front of us, provoking a long “Oooohhh” for each and everyone of his stunts.
In the desert, the prevailing winds of fashion that have taken over the main shopping malls all throughout the country, are undetectable, and sometimes the impression is to be in one of those rare places still untouched by the modern world. Swarthy camel farmers live how they lived their ancestors, unscathed by the effects of globalization and maintaining the same contact with Nature as they would in the past.
With still a tinge of fear due to the reckless dune driving, we were allowed to visit a camel farm. This was the part I was truly looking forward to. I’ve always been attracted by deserts’ atmosphere and in my mind camels are the epitome of company, mystery and safety where nothing else is available. In the desert, camels represent wealth, and farmers take good care of their treasure, sharing with them travels and goods. As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed by a herd of dark beige camels who, fully aware of being the stars of the moment, calmly kept chomping their grass while posing in front of our cameras. I was all over the place, I couldn’t stop playing with camels and feeding them. In all this camel-burst I completely forgot my camera, but fortunately my friend Boff knew full well I would have never forgiven myself for missing the occasion to bring with me the evidence and the memory of those precious moments, and took plenty of photographs of me with those “ships of the desert”.
Riding a camel, however, is different from feeding one. I wanted to feel the thrill of wandering like a Bedouin for a handful of seconds, so I asked the farmer if he’d let me ride his camel, thinking that it would have been a little like sitting on a horse. I was met with a witty giggle from the tunic-clad farmer, who kindly helped me clamber on the dozing animal. “Easy” I thought, until the camel stood up. You are not aware of a camels’ size until you are riding one. I realized I was taking it too easy and managed to grab the rope just in time to avoid falling off the tallest animal I had ever ridden. Other safari companions preferred to perform a more familiar activity and went skiing down the huge sandy slopes.
With my great sadness, at the sunset we were said to let camels rest from the heavy working day and we were off to the camp, to enjoy a typical, glamorous night in the desert. As soon as we got there, I took my shoes off to feel the soft sand under my feet, despite the temperature having cooled down dramatically.
Once in the camp, we tired wanderers back from the fatigues of dune driving and camel farming were offered excellent traditional refreshments, to be chosen among Arabic tea and coffee. Little by little the ladies grew impatient in the wait for the Ethiopian henna painter, who slowly prepared her tools under a big tent, conscious of being observed by the growing queue waiting for her services. On a neighboring tent, there was Salim, the fashion designer of the group, who helped men and women who wanted to try the traditional Arabic garments. I couldn’t miss that occasion and, after getting my hand henna-painted, I rushed to the fashion department to spruce myself up by wearing the fascinating traditional abayah.
As Sardinia was half-Arab in the Middle Age, my Sardinian origins give me a strong Arabian look, to the extent that, wherever I go, Arabs address me in Arabic. Moreover, traditional Sardinian and Arabian costumes look impressively similar, maybe that’s why I felt unusually comfortable with the hijab on.
These leisure activities were in preparation for the crowning moment of the evening, to be enjoyed after the succulent kebab-based barbecue. The dinner was performed in a proper desert-like style. Big, colorful cushions were our chairs, and the low tables ware set all around, a huge stage. I didn’t feel hungry until I saw the self-service buffet: a great choice of Arabian gastronomic delicacies involving all sorts of salads, kebabs and meatballs was on display before us. I had no choice but to take the plunge.
After the dinner, we were introduced to the highlight of the evening: a winsome Tunisia-born belly-dancer glided in and started enchanting all presents, men and women alike, with her engaging manners and sensual dancing skills, embodying what in the West has always evoked forbidden mores and inaccessible costumes. From our colored cushions, we enjoyed the exotic show, until the dancer challenged the spectators to join her on stage. I had acted like a child with no self-dignity all day, especially when we were at the camel farm, but I wasn’t ready to humiliate myself belly-dancing. Nevertheless, some of the spectators were far less shy and performed a sort of mock-belly-dancing provoking the general hilarity.
In Arab land, there is no proper ending of a night out without the traditional sheesha, or more commonly known as nargileh. I had already smoked water pipe during my last visit in Istanbul and I had enjoyed it, but the one I had in Abu Dhabi desert was truly aphrodisiac, apple-flavored and exquisitely balanced so that the smoke didn’t prevent from properly tasting the tobacco.
As the gloom deepened, the laid-back vibe of the desert’s inhabitants had totally conquered me, to the extent that I would have found perfectly natural spending the night in a tent. In ancient times, only seldom Bedouins would venture throughout the dunes from oases to oases, while now tourist organizations offer the possibility to visitors coming from every corner of the planet to experience the life in the desert.
If compared to the plush atmosphere of UAE’s main cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we would tend to believe that camel farmers living in weathered tents in the middle of nowhere was a lifestyle belonging to a remote past in the Emirates’ history. However, as I ventured deeper among the dunes, spoke to locals and delved into the country’s history, I was somehow pleased to find out that the modern world got there rather recently, and that only forty years ago the Emirates was a desert land. This, for that matter, explains full well the passion that still today local Emiratis have for their desert, and why they enjoy venture in such excursions whenever they can.
No matter how many Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati or Lamborghini dart in Abu Dhabi or Dubai roads, the soul of Emirati people belongs to the desert, and the way Sheikhs govern their Emirate has retained much of the tribal care and solidarity towards the other members of the clan.
It’s this fleeting yet intense experience that will be impressed in my memory for the time being. At the end of the evening lights were turned off and we were brought back to reality by the same 4×4 Land Cruiser that had introduced us to the desert only a couple of hours earlier. After a day spent in such an primordial reality, I can see why camel farmers and desert-dwellers are not envious of our fast-paced routine.