You have no idea how many nights I remember, says Khamis Al Fendi, his voice gravelly, as if there is sand between his tonsils. The patriarch of the Al Mazrouei clan sits in a chair; the rest of us recline on carpets in the ocean of Arabian sand. The moon is big, bright, and almost full. His 160 camels stand hobbled nearby.
“Drink,” one of his sons says, handing me a stainless steel bowl he has filled with camel’s milk, foamy and thick. “It will make you strong!”
Al Fendi and his caravan are returning from three months of grazing the camels in Saudi Arabia; they’ve been travelling for 30 days. The night is balmy, windless. Twelve of us sit on three carpets under the stars, enjoying a feast of rice and freshly killed sheep, which we eat communally with our fingers off a platter big enough to hold, well, a whole sheep. Some of the men, clad in traditional white dishdashas and head coverings called gitras, smoke pipes. The earthy smell of camel dung lingers in the air.
“You should come in winter,” one of the men says. “It’s cold and you need the fire.”
“In winter,” Al Fendi remembers, “we always were hungry and cold. Then the oil companies came.”
When your mind is just so, certain words and images hit, and imagination is born. For me the words and images were of the Bedouin. Arabia. The Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter. I had seen David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia as a child; that is where it must have begun. As a teenager I read Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger’s tale of crossing the Empty Quarter in the 1940s. His stark words and black-and-white photographs seduced me with glimpses of Bedouin lives that seemed difficult, austere, and noble—the epitome of romance. Thesiger worried about keeping up physically with the Bedouin. Much more challenging, it would turn out, was their pure moral code, born from surviving in one of the harshest climates on Earth. “All that is best in the Arabs,” he wrote, “has come to them from the desert.”
Decades later, the closest I’d come to Arabia was urban Cairo. Where could one still find real Arabian Bedouin these days anyway, I wondered? The Arabian countries where oil had been found were rich, modern. Many Arab nations, including Egypt, Syria, and Sudan, were experiencing political unrest. Then I heard about Abu Dhabi.
Largest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, this land about the size of West Virginia and bordering Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the strategic Persian Gulf makes much of its nomadic Bedouin heritage. That can be hard to square with the glass-and-steel canyons of the capital city, also named Abu Dhabi, where streets are filled with Indians in saris, Pakistanis in salwar-kameez, and Filipinos in T-shirts and flip-flops. Or with places like the Marina Mall, a gleaming shopping plaza packed with dishdasha-clad Emiratis (as citizens of the United Arab Emirates are called) sipping caramel macchiatos from Starbucks and stocking up on 60-inch flat screens.
Abu Dhabi is unimaginably rich; it rests atop nearly ten percent of the world’s known oil reserves. Building cranes dot the cloudless sky, Porsches and Escalades are everywhere, and a branch of Paris’s Louvre Museum is rising on an island off Abu Dhabi city. The very idea of a nomadic Emirati living in a tent and tending to his camels out in the desert these days seems absurd.
Still, the official U.A.E. line reminds everyone of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s directive to blend old and new, to preserve Bedouin culture even as the country continues to tap into its colossal wealth. (This has been in contrast to the other emirate that is flush with oil: Dubai, a city that makes Abu Dhabi seem almost pastoral.) However, what may come across as hagiographic public-relations talk is, in Abu Dhabi’s case, true.
I look at Khamis Al Fendi, sitting under the stars barefoot while drinking raw camel’s milk and eating with his fingers, and try to grasp that he’s wealthier than I can fathom. His caravan includes a kitchen on wheels, a massive travel trailer, tankers for water and fuel, and numerous SUVs. Then there are his 160 black-collared camels—a Saudi Arabian breed that is prized for its beauty—that are worth millions.
Indeed, at the emirate’s 2010 camel beauty contest, the trading in camels rang up some $400 million. Popular pastimes in Abu Dhabi include camel racing, camel breeding, and falconry. Bedu (Bedouin) such as Al Fendi spend weeks out in the desert in winter, playing in the dunes and tending their camel herds. Abu Dhabi may be increasingly educated, affluent, and cosmopolitan, but beneath lies a culture of the desert and the tent—and I want to find it.
A friend of a friend connects me to Salem Al Mazrouei, director of operations and logistics for the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority. He’s in his thirties, bearded, once lived in the U.S., and speaks English with an American accent. I telephone him with the hope that he can help me find some real Bedouin.
“We are all Bedouin,” he says. “As a child I lived in a tent. My father goes to his camel stable every day. I will take you.”
It is late afternoon by the time Salem manages to escape from the office and we head into the western desert. The original plan was to go to his hometown of Madinat Zayid, a bastion of traditional culture, but he’d caught wind of Al Fendi coming in, so we blast into the desert in his 4×4. I don’t know how he finds Al Fendi and his caravan: The dunes roll east, west, north, and south with little distinction.
When we arrive, I enter an older world. There are no women; as long as I’m with Salem and in the desert, the women are somewhere else. What there is plenty of is talk, wherever we go. It’s how I learn that neither Salem’s father nor his grandfather, both the heads of large companies, can read.
They were born in a different world. Until the 1950s, Abu Dhabi was essentially a small coastal village of pearlers and fishermen—and warring nomadic tribesmen in a searingly hot world, who wandered the deserts and oases eking out a living mostly from their camels. Sheikh Zayed slowly consolidated power, and then came the oil, lots of it. Salem’s grandfather figured out a way to transport oil-drilling rigs without dismantling them, and soon he too was rich. Still, by 1976, when Salem was born, the village of Madinat Zayid had only a few houses. Growing up, Salem lived at his grandparents’ house during the hot summers and moved to a tent from September through April.
“Sheikh Zayed said, ‘I don’t want to bring the Bedouin to the city, but to bring culture to the Bedouin,’ ” he tells me.
We enjoy more coffee and tea and dates in the dunes, under a huge black sky lit by a bright moon. This is followed by dinner: meat surrounded by rice, with plastic packages of yogurt. We sit and eat, the meat tender and hot and fatty. Next, it’s time to pray. The men kneel shoulder to shoulder, then press their foreheads to the still warm sand, giving thanks to a God who let them survive another day in the harsh environment. At that moment I see it, understand it: the deep bond between faith and landscape.
Another round of coffee, and it’s time to turn in.
“Only drink a little,” says Muhammad, one of Al Fendi’s sons. “Otherwise no sleep. Night is for sleep. Camels sleep. Horses sleep. Even flowers sleep.”
I spend the next night in the four-star Tilal Liwa resort hotel, smack in the middle of the desert, overlooking dunes that roll to the horizon. At dawn I make my way to Madinat Zayid’s camel racetrack. It’s Friday and the paddocks are crowded with hundreds of sleek, tan camels in racing bridles. Each is mounted with a two-foot-high, remote-controlled robot jockey brandishing a riding crop.
This race is nothing like horse racing. There is no grandstand, betting and booze are prohibited, and the oval track is long—nine miles long. In fact, it’s hard to tell what’s going on; I need to find an English speaker. Persistence pays off. A man named Khamis, wearing designer shades and a thick beard, beckons me to follow him. Camels, he explains, race in age groups. They’ll line up behind a net at the start, held by human handlers who wear protective vests and helmets. When the net rises, the handlers let go and the camels take off, all surging necks and stampeding hooves.
Race camels traditionally had been ridden by children from poor countries, but child jockeys were banned in the U.A.E. in 2002 and replaced by diminutive mechanical jockeys. We scramble for Khamis’s pickup truck, leap in, and blast off with other spectators in a cloud of dust. A flowing cacophony of horns and shouts races after the galloping camels.
Khamis whistles into one walkie-talkie, which signals his camel’s robot jockey to whip the animal on, and barks, “Hut, hut, hut!” into a second one.
“Bedu crazy!” he yells to me, laughing deeply as cars swerve and camels run in the free-for-all. “Good camel!” he shouts. “Fast! Fast! Fast! Yella yella yella!”
The event has the feel of a tractor pull in the U.S., men playing and having fun with tools essential to their lives. But midway, his camel flags and drops back. Khamis turns quiet.
By 9:30 a.m., as the sun begins to burn, the racing winds down. Long lines of camels and their handlers lope back toward stables scattered across the desert. Khamis’s stable is typical: His family has several hundred camels kept in various pens arranged around a concrete house with a majlis—an open living area with a central coffee table laid with cups, dates, and other fruit and surrounded by floor cushions. We sit, drink tea and coffee, talk. Men come and go in this older form of connectivity that makes Facebook and email seem as ethereal as smoke. And we eat—huge meals of fish and camel and rice and yogurt. Three German tourists join us; Khamis saw them taking photos on the side of the road and invited them back to the stables. Suddenly they’re as much family as I.
“People call us rigid-minded,” says Musallam Al Ameri, who looks younger than his 32 years and speaks perfect English after four years at an American university. “But we’re nomads. We maintain certain principles and values that cannot be broken. Integrity. Honesty. Hospitality. Visiting our relations, our neighbours, our elders is important. Our religion commands it.”
For fifth grade he moved to town to attend school.
“We waited for the weekend to return to the desert. We love camels. A nomad and his camel have a very tight connection. It is the highest level of appreciation and love.”
Bedouin also love falconry. Food was traditionally scarce for desert nomads and protein in their diet important, so the Bedouin found the ultimate hunting machine. Hunting no longer is permitted in Abu Dhabi itself, to preserve its fauna, but falconry remains a passion. Nearly every Emirati with a camel stable also has birds. In late afternoon, Salem hands me over to Mubarak Al Mazrouei, who is taking two of his five saker falcons out for evening training. They’re big and beautiful, with enormous talons and poufy chests. Their eyes are covered by a leather hood, their legs tied loosely to wooden stands. When unleashed they are wildness defined, pure predator, and together they’re worth $50,000.
We load them into the car—they perch on the backseat—and drive into the desert. The sun is low, the day’s heat ebbing. We stop on a plateau. The horizon is endless, with the sun setting on one side as the moon rises on the other.
“I fly them every morning and evening,” Al Mazrouei says to me as he fits the birds with tiny antennas. He takes the hood off one, unties its leash, and off it soars.
The saker falcon is one of the fastest birds of prey on the planet. Al Mazrouei whirls a lure overhead. I watch as the bird races in, dives down—and Al Mazrouei snatches the lure away. “It’s to teach him to come back if he misses,” he says.
Then things become more serious: Al Mazrouei takes a live pigeon, plucks its wings a little, and releases it in the falling light. Despite its missing feathers, the pigeon is a fast, darting flier. It rises high and heads away, a dark speck. But the falcon knows its business. It’s the F-22 fighter jet of the bird world. Now both birds wheel and circle—and the falcon strikes from the rear. The deed is done.
The raptor stands atop its kill, eyes as big as black marbles. It bites and feeds.
“Shh, shh,” whispers Al Mazrouei, reflecting centuries of man and bird together in the desert. He takes a sip of water and spits it gently into the falcon’s beak, cleaning the blood. The moon rises.
“I have had him one month now, and he is almost ready. When he does his first real hunt I will gift him a name.”
You cannot understand Abu Dhabi without going out to the oasis of Al Ain, in the eastern desert hard against the border with Oman. So I go. Al Ain is Abu Dhabi’s second largest city, but step past the mud walls of its Sultan and Al Jahili forts, and the modern town falls away. It was here that Sheikh Zayed began to consolidate his power over disparate warring tribes by improving the area’s irrigation systems, which increased local agricultural production. I spend hours around the forts, admiring old cannons and a spiked door in Sultan, then gazing at Al Jahili’s collection of black-and-white photos taken by Thesiger.
The forts today appear simple, yet they’re remarkable. Al Jahili looks like a giant sand castle with its crenulated round towers. The walls are thick, the small rooms cool. In a world where there was so little beyond dunes and tents, the forts must have seemed like small cities. I let my mind wander, imagining camels and riders coming and going, smoke rising from cooking fires, Sheikh Zayed heading out for a month of hunting in the nearby mountains. Then I make my way to the oasis, where plots of green date palms are cut with irrigation canals, providing essential shelter and sustenance in a desert land. I wander among the palms, jealous of Thesiger for seeing it before modernisation, thankful that I’m seeing it now.
I end up spending a few nights in Abu Dhabi city, a different world but one I like, too. Backstreets are crowded with people from around the world. Mosque muezzins call the faithful to prayer as six-table Indian masala joints dish out meals for a dollar. At the wharf on the Persian Gulf before dawn, hundreds of wooden dhows disgorge their catches into neat piles of silvery fish, and an auctioneer passes down the rows fielding bids in singsong Arabic. A boat crew from Gujarat, India, waves me over and invites me to join them for rice with black pickled mango, curried crab, and a few shots of Scotch. Some moments I’m not sure where I really am because it is all so international, and I think: This is the future—a mix of everyone in a certain place that is not really anywhere.
But in Abu Dhabi it’s the desert that calls. I grab fruit, snacks, bottles of water, and a cheap sleeping bag at the nearest department store and drive out to Tal Mireb, which, I’ve heard, is the tallest dune reachable by road. Tal Mireb rises along a string of oases that Wilfred Thesiger was the first Westerner to chronicle.
I don’t want to merely see the Empty Quarter—I want to sleep in it, experience it, to understand what Thesiger meant when he lingered on its edge in 1947 and wrote this line: “It was very still, with the silence which we have driven from our world.”
Two hours out of the city, the dunes are huge, rolling monsters, tidal waves of orange and yellow under watercolour blue. It’s nearly twilight when I find Tal Mireb. I deflate the tires and shift into four-wheel drive, lurching and spinning onto the dune, up, up, up, and over. I settle the vehicle into a level nook of sand from which I can see no road and get out to continue climbing on foot as high as I can.
The sun is an orange ball dipping behind the dunes. And there is silence. A silence so deep, the sound of my pen scratching on my notepad has never seemed so loud. The slightest of breezes blows, and it feels as if the whole world is alive, quietly, here. This surely is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, this unending sand of the Empty Quarter. I think of how everyone should see it, along with the unending ice of the Arctic and the unending blue of the deep ocean.
I lie on the warm sand as still as I can be. There is no movement but the stars. They fall, tiny fragile lights gone so quickly that I wonder if I even saw them. I want to write about them. But the Empty Quarter is so empty that it is full, and the sound of my pen is much too loud.
Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. Its largest city, Abu Dhabi, is the capital of the U.A.E. and is located on the western coast with the Persian Gulf. The Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert in the world, and sprawls across the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, covering parts of the U.A.E., Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. The oasis of Liwa, located on the northern edge of the Empty Quarter, is 220 km/2 hours south of Abu Dhabi. Al Ain, known as the Garden City, is the second largest city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and is 160 km/1.5 hours east of Abu Dhabi city.
There are several, daily, non-stop flights to Abu Dhabi city from India, on both Indian and international carriers. Flying time is 3-4 hours. A 30-day tourist visa can be sought through travel agents, airlines, hotels, or a U.A.E. national sponsor. The visa costs $96/₹6,543 and takes between 3-7 days.
Abu Dhabi Opt for the metered silver or pink cabs (driven by women for women and boys under ten) while travelling within the city. Avoid the white-and-yellow cabs, which may not run by meter. Buses are easily available, running daily from 5 a.m. to midnight during weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends.
Liwa Oasis From Abu Dhabi city, the 220-km drive to Liwa takes 2 hours. The route is well marked so it is recommended to rent a car and drive yourself. Buses to Tarif leave from the main bus terminal and taxi stand in Abu Dhabi every hour, with the last departing bus at 9 p.m. From there you can get a connection to Liwa. The last bus leaves at 9 p.m. Tal Mireb, which is the most impressive dune in the U.A.E., is about 20 km further south of Mezzaira’a.
Al Ain The easiest way to travel from Abu Dhabi city to Al Ain is by bus. Buses leave every half hour, from 4.30 a.m. to midnight. For travel within Al Ain, taxis are inexpensive and easy to find.
Abu Dhabi During summer (Jun-Sep), daytime temperatures range from 40° to 48°C. During the night, the temperature can drop to 25°C. Humidity is high, generally about 80 to 90 percent. Winter (Oct-Mar) is tourist season, with cooler daytime highs ranging from 24°-30°C, and minimum temperatures of 10°-15°C. The city experiences foggy mornings and evenings in Nov-Dec, and there is occasionally light rainfall. Sandstorms are a common occurrence between Apr and Jul.
Liwa Summer is the hardest in Liwa, where the temperature can soar to 60°C in the sun from Apr-Aug. Starting September, it gets cooler and the weather becomes bearable. January is the coldest month with a minimum temperature of about 10°C. March is pleasant at about 22°C.
Al Ain The city experiences more rain than Abu Dhabi, because of the Hajar Mountains nearby. Summer (May-Aug) temperatures can rise over 50°C. During winter (Dec-Feb), the mercury ranges between 25°C and 5°C.
One to One-The Village is housed in short-storeyed apartments spread over an alleyway instead of in skyscrapers (+971-2-4952020; www.onetoonehotels.com; doubles from AED 400/₹7,400 per night).
Yas Viceroy is located atop the Formula One track and has great views (+971-2-6560000; www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/abudhabi; doubles from AED 562/₹10,350).
Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet is a unique mountain oasis resort, located at a height of 915 m on Hafeet Mountain, the second tallest in the U.A.E. (+971-3-7838888; www.mercure.com; doubles from AED 314/₹5,800).
Al Ain Rotana is located in a vibrant part of the city and has elegant poolside villas, mountain views, and some great restaurants (+971-3-7545111; www.rotana.com/rotanahotelandresorts/unitedarabemirates/alain/alainrotana; doubles from AED 650/₹12,000).
Liwa Hotel has traditional Arabian decor and activities like camel rides, sand boarding, and quad biking (+971-2-8822000; www.almarfapearlhotels.com/liwa; doubles from AED 320/₹5,900).
Tilal Liwa Resort Hotel is luxurious with desert safaris, steam baths, a sun-lounger terrace, and spectacular, sweeping views of the Empty Quarter. (+44-203-5642773; tilal-liwa.hotel-rn.com; doubles from AED 500/₹9,300).
Appeared in the November 2013 issue as “The Big Empty”.