Back in mid November I received an email from my dear friend, New York's design icon Tucker Robbins. Tucker is a renowned furniture designer whose passion lies in the cooperation among global cultures. His vision is to be a bridge between disparate cultures and to give back to the environment and the people who live in it.
I started to read the following email:
"On behalf of the Crown prince of Abu Dhabi and Mohamed Khalf Al Mazroeui, I extend a warm welcome to join us at the Al Dhafra Camel festival. Accommodations will be provided at the VIP tent encampment in the Liwa desert. Preference will be given to guests looking for an immersion in the Bedouin culture."
Within minutes my fingers pressed the reply button: "This is the most impulsive decision I ever made, but count me in!"
I woke up my husband who was still sound asleep at 5AM, and asked if he would mind spending Christmas without me. Christmas is a very important tradition in our family, as every year we host our traditional Christmas lunch to a gathering of 20 plus close friends. Typically our tree is nearly occluded by the gifts that surround it; presents for friends and family, the lunch is always a very fancy and culinary affair with the most special wine and fare. I then woke up my sons and read them Tucker's email….immediately, they said… Mom you must go! this is an amazing opportunity to experience this part of the world…you have gone through a lot lately and you need to do something positive… By mid morning I had booked my flight ticket , destination: Abu Dhabi.
I had absolutely no idea of what to expect or who would be present. After two rather long flights, arriving at the airport with no one in sight bearing a sign with my name, I started to wander…how do I get to the desert, what am I doing in this crowded airport?… I took a deep breath, annoyed every local agent who could speak english, dialed every number I had for Tucker and his team in New York… to no avail. So I made a rational decision to stay put and wait. A few hours later, I had never been so happy to recognize a familiar face…. Clodagh had just walk though the exit gate, I ran to her and gave her the biggest hug. Clodagh is by far the most talented International Designer: from spas, to hotels, to interiors and designs, she brings her incredible talent to enhance life and spirit through timeless, responsive design. Then walked in another western woman who looked as she was searching for a sign. Her name is Helene and we have been inseparable ever since. We all arrived at 3 AM, had a drink at a lavish hotel in the desert and were thrilled to stay in such a magnificent place in the desert (so we thought...). Well…. that was only the first (of many stops as the hotel was our only link to wifi, cocktails and pool…) and we quickly went back into the car that took us to the camp.
The rest of this story is a tale of incredibly generous and kind hosts, the immersion in the ancient foreign culture of the Bedouins (locally, "Bedu"), surrounded by magnificent desert landscapes and golden dunes.
The daily ritual is waking up to a lavish breakfast spread, our hosts, their friends and our small group would wander in the tent and the conversations would start. Lunch is a huge fare of Tagines, fish, rice, vegetables, platters after platters of food. Dinner is over the top with trays laden with lamb chops, sheep meats, chicken, goat meat and … camel meat. I don't eat sheep or goat and couldn't bring myself to eat the camel, because I so love the ungainly creatures. Luckily, I befriended our French speaking Moroccan chef who happily prepared me special and amazingly delicious vegetarian Tagines.
We would then retire in our beautiful tent and start evening presentations and conversations. Our hosts would drop in and share stories.
My day would start at sunrise, climbing the dunes, sitting on top of the tallest dune and taking in the astounding beauty, the vastness and harshness of the largest desert in the world, known locally as the empty quarter of the vast Arabian Desert. Its deep orange-red color comes from oxidized iron, and the white shade from limestone dating back to prehistoric lake beds. I enjoyed beautiful private moments reflecting on the magnificence of our planet and its more magnificent and generous creator.
The days were filled with exotic exciting events taking place during the yearly Al Dhafra Camel Festival.
Under blazing sun, we would watch the races from the VIP tent and partake in the camels beauty pageant Camels from all over the region gather at Madinat every year for trading and beauty contest. This is an intense serious business, thousands of camels and their owners compete, prizes include cars, large sums of cash, and camels can be traded for over $3 million dollars for a particularly special camel. It is said that Bedouins greatest love is their camels. As official guests of the Prince, we rode camels, were allowed in the camel corrals and partook in all the festivities. Our amazing hosts provided us with cars and drivers to go from event to event. At the end of each day, the winners would parade on the "million dollars road" crazily happy, riding on top of their new cars, an insane traffic jam of camels, cars, men singing, shouting, dancing. Each nation would fly their flag and would set up lavish camps, from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Muscat, Al Gharbia, Qatar, Barhain and Kowait.
Falconry was another of my favorite activities to watch. Originally practiced by Bedouins to hunt hares for food, it has since developed into a traditional sport with very specific rules. This is a very popular and glamorous sport among the Emiratis. From falcons to Sanuki dog racing, arabian horse racing, walking the craft fairs … the days were filled with excitement, beauty and new lessons in cultural understanding. We also ventured into the Liwa oasis on the Arabian peninsula, acres of date plantations surrounded by ancient forts and majestic desert.
Like most of Tucker's friends, I have been very lucky and blessed to see the world through quite extensive travel. But these last ten days have been unlike any experience I have had before. When asked by our host what we can take back with us, my answer was humility… This experience has been an incredible lesson in humility, acceptance and respect. Respect of tradition, acceptance of difference in religions and customs, acceptance of the humbling gifts of generosity.
For privacy reasons, I will not specifically name the great leading Bedouin family who so openly and kindly accepted us and cared for us, but I will never forget them. When we arrived, The Emirates were in a time of deep sorrow and mourning having just lost their visionary leader, HE Mohamed al Mazroeui who died tragically in early December, but the family kept their word and welcomed us into heart of their tribe.
As dear Tucker says.." the desert has the job of putting all in its place. The sand fills all voids, all is put right, as said, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Thank you Tucker, thank you my Bedouin friends.
Tucker and Hussein
conversations by the campfire
my morning walks
The guys are crazy drivers…was fearing for my life!
Camel beauty contest
The winner…will go home with a brand new car and cash…
The VIP lounge
The winning tea
The various camps
Ancient forts in the Liwa Oasis
In Abu Dhabi: the recently built Mosque
I was thrilled to visit my favorite building
If you are planning to travel to the UAE:
amazing spa resort: Qasr Al Sarab anantara.com
Desert Island resort and spa:www.anantara.com (one of the world's most unique and luxurious retreat)
Our hang out in the desert: Tilal Liwa Hotel www.danathotels.com
In Abu Dhabi: Saint Regis Corniche