Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Weekend Excursion from Dubai . . . MIDNIGHT AT THE LIWA OASIS - OUR FIRST UAE "IN-COUNTRY' ADVENTURE

The Liwa Oasis
An undated image of a camel train leaving and oasis.
Liwa is part of a crescent shaped oasis made up of 15 small towns that form the gateway to the dramatic expanse of the “Empty Quarter” also known as the Al Rub Al Khali Desert – the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world - larger than the combined areas of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Artifacts found in this area, on the western edge of the United Arab Emirate (UAE), date back to the Stone Age, around 5500 – 3500 years B.C. While details are sketchy, it is believed that the first inhabitants of this area were Bedouins of the Manasir tribe followed by the Bani Yas tribe who arrived around the 16th century.  The ruling family of Abu Dhabi is the al Nahyan family who are members of the Bani Yas Tribe.

With its freshwater pools and palm groves, the oasis of Liwa was a major destination for the early travelers who crossed the desert in camel trains to bring their goods to trade. The first European to enter Liwa was the late Sir Wilfred Thesiger who documented his 1940’s travels on the Arabian Peninsula in his book Arabian Sands.”

Today, the area is a thriving agricultural center. Where 20-years ago there were no roads, electricity, schools or hospitals and people lived in barista huts made from date palm fronds (homes were not built until the 1970s), today you see a modern highway that connects the area to Abu Dhabi and large groves of date palm trees basking in the desert sun ripening the produce that has made Liwa so revered in the Arab world – dates!

It also must be noted, that remarkable for an area so far inland, there is a fish farm. Supported by an enormous lake that lies under the sand whose salt content is similar to that of the Arabian Gulf, bulti-fish (tilapia nilotica) are being raised. 

The “Empty Quarter,” with its summer temperatures reaching nearly 55C (131F) at noon and sand dunes larger than the Eiffel Tower – some almost 300 feet high – is a most hostile environment but stunningly beautiful.  As the day progresses, you can witness the changing colors of the sand from gold to red, particularly striking at the beginning and end of the day.  These sand dunes, devoid of all vegetation, have remained unspoiled and unchanged for centuries. If you are lucky, it is said that you may see a Bedouin tent encampment.


Our Trip
My biggest quest for this trip is to see and hopefully ride a camel! We have been in the UAE 3 ½ months and haven’t been “up close and personal” with a camel yet! We both came to the UAE thinking camels would be everywhere.

Roger’s biggest dilemma is which car to take. As is customary in the UAE, we find conflicting information regarding the condition of the roads. Roger, who is very particular on which roads he will permit his dear Corvette to be driven, agonizes for days over the decision.  He finally makes up his mind declaring, the "Silver Surfer Vette is not going to be left behind!"  In the end, this proves to be good news and bad news. The highway ride is exhilarating but we find that the interesting sights to see in Liwa – and there aren't many – require some off road driving which we prudently decide is not a good idea for the Vette. 
Roger is surprised to learn that I, who is the far more adventurous one, is quite apprehensive about our first trip “in country.” I admit to many fitful nights full of nightmares about kidnappers, vehicle break downs in the middle of the desert, marauding camels, etc. Just to be safe I email Anne O'Connell, my friend in Dubai, and our daughter Charlene Sachs in the USA, all the information anyone would need to find us – passport numbers, license tags, cell phone numbers, our photos, the hotel number, the embassy numbers, etc. You name it I sent it. Should someone have to send in the ‘Mounties’ to find us, I don't want to hear "we couldn’t rescue you because we didn’t have any information."   

After one false start – we forgot two important survival items – water and the GPS – we are on our way headed south on the Sheikh Zayed Road (SZR). The speed is posted at 120km/h but Roger will verify from his daily commute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi that the actual speed of the drivers exceeds 180km/h (112mph).  This is not a road for the faint-hearted.  On this Friday morning, however, SZR is quite tame and enjoyable.

The highway to Liwa being, a very modern four-lane highway, gives the Vette no concern – in fact we enjoy letting it “run!” Turning onto Highway 45 we find both sides of the roadway lined with date palm trees. Not only do the palms help keep the sand off the road, they provide an aesthetically pleasing tree line that grows the primary agricultural product for the region – dates. Roger is just happy that the palms, with help from some fencing, may distract camels from coming on to the highway. He firmly believes that dates are camels’ favorite treats, there being not much else to nibble on in the desert. However, as is our fate – still no camel sightings!
While the bottles of water prove to be essential, we find out right away that the GPS can't even find Liwa on its map. I just can’t fathom how ancient bedu guides transverse the desert relying only on their instincts, landmarks and trails of camel dung.  I, on the other hand, have limited success finding our way with a GPS and three maps! No blonde jokes please!  Smartly, being the resourceful navigator that I am, I previously obtained directions from the hotel.
Once we pass through Abu Dhabi and head into the desert we are thankful to find Liwa Date Festival signs to confirm we have not taken any wrong turns. Actually, we don't make any of our famous “Loops of Shame” while going to Liwa – the return trip; well that’s another story.  The desert dunes are seen beyond the date palm trees lining the highway and the closer we get to Liwa the larger and more majestic the dunes become. The sands have a stunning red tinge that is beautiful and enchanting. 

After three hours we finally come to a sign directing us to turn off the highway to the Tilal Liwa Hotel. The roundabout just before the entrance has a giant Arabian coffee pot and cup – rather Disney-like but the hotel is stunning. It is very dramatic in its Arabic architecture. The infinity pool that overlooks the desert is surreal.  There is only one exception to this picturesque setting . . . the hotel is not in Liwa! Who would have thought with a name like that! Needless to say, we are quite dismayed to realize that Liwa is another 30 minute drive from the hotel! 

Tilal Liwa Hotel sits the middle of the rolling sands of the Al Rub Al Khali Desert like a ruling sultan on top of a sand dune - quite dramatic and impressive! The staff is friendly and plentiful, a common phenomena in the UAE. Where in the USA you are greeted by one doorman, registered by one staff personnel and baggage is delivered by one bellman . . . it seems that in the UAE each position has three people assigned to it. As Roger so astutely observes, this is probably a testament to the Bedouin tradition of gracious hospitality as they are ALL gracious and most welcoming.

Upon registering, we look around and notice that there were only a few guests – maybe 8 – 10 people, and the hotel advertises 111 rooms. When we reach our room, which is beautifully decorated in the colors of the desert, we find that it has a view of the desert, very nice, and a view of the staff quarters, very bad. I have traveled enough to know you can always ask for an upgrade so I request a room overlooking the pool area. Unfortunately, the answer is no because we reserved a ‘standard’ room.  What a “wrong answer!” Imagine how we would have sung their praises if they had given us a simple upgrade in a hotel that was basically empty!

After settling in our room, we go to the restaurant. We are served a delicious lunch of Sea Bass marinated in Ormani spices served with ginger sauce. In fact it was so wonderful I ask if the chef would part with the recipe. To our surprise he comes to our table and explains how he prepared it. He is from Sri Lanka and, even though my ears are still not attuned to English spoken with heavy accents, I think I get the gist of it.

Following lunch it is time to explore Liwa. The festival does not open until the next day but we decide to go have a look around. First we go to the Liwa Hotel, yes the original Liwa Hotel located right in the middle of town. The hotel was probably built in the 1950s and is quite large with outlying villas.  We go inside and have a yummy fruit drink in the ‘bar’ overlooking the pool area – no alcohol available in these parts of the UAE!

As we drive around the complex we notice a four-foot high wall designed to hold back the dessert sand. Near the back of the compound we come across steps that that lead to the desert. It is obvious that the sand is winning! We climb the steps to have a view of the desert valley and it is breathtaking. Did we mention that at this point the temperature has reached 49C (120F)? It is rather like standing in front a roaring furnace with the door open. 

Not wishing to linger in the outside heat any longer, we continue our excursion around the village to find the Festival. The large white Festival tents are easy to find and on the outskirts of the official tents some vendors are setting up small tents where their wares would be sold the next day. We are very anxious to find some interesting items for our apartment but it is apparent we will have to wait until Saturday. Also on the outskirts of the festival tents are pens of sheep and goats. Since this is not a petting zoo, we surmise that their fate is to be the entree for dinners during the Festival. Baa! Baa! Baa!

Heading back to the Tilal, we run into a sandstorm that is quite strong. Desert sand is so fine it literally seeps into any opening no matter how small. This only escalates Roger’s anxiety regarding damage to his beloved car. I wrap up in a scarf and just try to keep the sand out of my lungs!  

After turning off the highway towards our hotel believe it or not there are CAMELS! Lots of camels! It turns out the hotel is located right next to a camel racetrack. This being the off season for camel racing, the camels are going for their afternoon exercise stroll. They are gorgeous and so rhythmic in their movements. Absolutely beautiful!

I am driving at this time and quickly stop the car and jump out to take photos.  I ask the camel driver if I can have my photo taken with the camels. The response is only an uncomprehending stare. I prudently go to “Plan B” and begin snapping photos ‘sans’ Katie.

Suddenly, Roger in an alarming tone says, “You had better stop taking photos because there is a very large white SUV over there with an Arab in a red ghutra (head scarf) blinking his lights, honking his horn and telling you to stop!” The only thing we can think of to explain this behavior is that these are prized racing camels and the owner doesn't want the competition to see any photos.  We quickly decide not stay and discuss the matter with the angry Arab and retreat to the car and leave.

By the way, if you haven’t been to a camel race yet, you really need to put it on your ‘bucket list. We have seen footage of races on TV and they look wild! Not only do the camels race with little robots on their backs - the use of small boy as jockeys was outlawed a number of years ago - but the owners also race in their SUVs and pick-up trucks along a parallel track with their remote controls  making the robots do whatever they do to make the camel run faster. This is like nothing you’ve ever seen. We can’t wait until November when racing season opens. We’ll be there!

Upon returning to the hotel after our daring escape from the camel owner, we think about going for a dip in the pool. During the conversation Roger brings up the point that we have only seen men in the public areas of both hotels - no women. We have caught a glimpse of a few veiled women walking down the corridors but none in the public areas. And the only people seen in the pools are men and boys.

Knowing that outside of urban areas like Dubai the local people tend to be more conservative, we aren't sure if it is appropriate for a woman to go swimming. Not that I am eager for anyone to see me in a swim suit anyway, but after the very warm afternoon outing a cool dip in the pool sounds refreshing. In the end we decide to follow a cardinal rule of living in a foreign country - If you are in doubt of being insensitive to local customs, just don’t do it. We take a snooze instead. 

Dinner at the Tilal that night is another gastronomical wonder.  We decide that this is the very best food we have had since coming to the UAE.  When we arrive at the restaurant, Chef Nishantha is front and center making certain that everything is to our liking. I have Kabsa Rubian, an Arab dish of shrimp cooked with tomato rice and dry lemon. Roger has grilled Hamour (a local fish similar to grouper) that came with uniquely spiced mouth-watering yellow rice. Both dishes are over the top. To make the evening complete, there is a duo singing American songs. Unfortunately, the entertainers did not know our song ‘At Last’ by Etta James or this trip’s theme song ‘Midnight at the Oasis!’ by Count Dee, one of the famous ‘one hit’ wonders.

Dates are a key component of Emirati heritage having been a source of sustenance for centuries. It is said that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) the Prophet lived exclusively on dates and camel's milk.

Billed as an interesting way to experience the Emirate culture, the Liwa Date festival falls into accordance with the sayings of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, “He, who does not have a past, has neither a present nor a future.

In its 6th year, the Liwa Date Festival is held in July with nearly 2000 competitors, 160 stalls selling handicrafts, numerous famers selling 120 types of Emirati dates, folklore performances and among other activities a children’s tent. The important competition of this festival is the judging of the Mazayin Al Ratab (half-ripe dates).  Last year more than 60,000 visitors attended. It is considered one of the most important cultural festivals in the UAE.

Famers come from all over the Arab Peninsula to exhibit their dates - prized as the best are the Dabbas and Khalas dates. Farmers compete for prizes worth more than Dhs 5 million ($1.3 million)! It is also billed as an annual festival for famers to exchange technical know-how and hence promote the harvest of the best quality dates that meet the highest standards. Finalists must have their farms inspected by the panel of judges to insure they meet hygiene standards, that their palm trees are properly cared for and that their irrigation systems do not waste water. They are also tested to make certain they are free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

When you travel with Roger you get used to being early and the Liwa Festival is no exception. When we arrive around 10 AM it is instantly obvious that the festival vendors are not set up as yet. The parking lot was jammed with people unloading their boxes and scurrying inside. We walk around the handicraft stalls and when we ask about the cost of an item we are shooed away. They were not ready to do business.

We did find it interesting that the handicraft stalls are staffed only by women. The Emirati women wear varying degrees of Muslim clothing – they all wear the abaya, a full length black robe while some wear the hijab headscarf and others chose to wear the niqab, the full veil that exposes only their eyes. A few women wear a decorative mask called the burqu that looks like gold metal but is really made of leather. I am told that the burqu, mostly worn by older women, also provides additional protection from the sun. Some women will rub moisturizer on the inside of the burqu that rests against the face. The other Muslim women who are helpers wear only the hijab. The Emirati women mainly stay in their stalls, many sitting on the floor with their back to the entrance.  I fear we are here on the wrong day of the Festival. Perhaps a better time to visit the Festival is later in the week or the following weekend when everyone is ready.

We next go to the Heritage village, a replica of a Bedouin camp, but again they are still setting up. While there we have a very interesting conversation with Mohamed Hamadnalla from the Farmers Services Centre Abu Dhabi. We learn that the Centre is dedicated to promoting sustainable farming among the date farmers. Water is a major problem that is growing more critical each day with the danger being the sea water encroachment in the wells. The Centre has been hard at work developing a date palm that can be sustained on more brackish water and still produce a fine date. Mohamed also mentions that there is a campaign currently underway to promote the use of camel milk which is lower in cholesterol than cows’ milk. And with Mohamed, we share our first taste of dates fresh from the tree. Roger and I agreed it is highly unlikely that we are going to become great date aficionados.

Advertised as part of the Festival is a cooking competition between the “best chefs” in the UAE. I am really eager to find out when that will be held. Unfortunately, there is no schedule of festival events – that’s right - this festival runs for 2 weeks and no one knows when the special events and performances are happening.

During this quest, we are fortunate to see some Emirati men practicing their traditional Camel Stick Dance and songs. The men are dressed in traditional clothing consisting of a long white dress called a dishdasha, a white headscarf called a gutrah which is topped off with the black cording called the olga. They line up shoulder to shoulder in two lines facing each other with the musical instruments, an oud (strings), tambourine and drums, between them. They move in unison as they sing and dip their camel sticks. Each side takes their turn in the lead and it appears that the other side is answering them. Of course, we have no idea what they were saying but it is very melodious, in a chanting sort of way, and interesting to watch.

I finally see an area that might be the site for a cooking competition. When I try to enter the security guard emphatically tells me “not authorized.” As we are walking away, a young Emirati man comes up and asks if we want to go inside. And of course Roger and I agree right away.  What the guard was preventing us from entering is the actual date judging room.  This young man from Liwa, whose uncle is one of the judges, explains in flawless English the process of the judging. The dates are not judged on their taste but on their texture, uniformity and color. Also included in the judging are inspections of the farms to insure the farming is being done in a sustainable and organic manner.

We come to the conclusion that the Liwa Date Festival, while interesting and conceptually a great idea, is like a state fair. For those who are really into dates, it’s great. However, if you have only have a passing interest it’ll take more organization to make the festival interesting and a must see event. The simple addition of a schedule of events would make a huge difference. We find the people, in keeping with the long held Bedouin culture of generous hospitality towards travelers, were very friendly and eager to help even when they spoke little English. . . time for me to start those Arabic lessons!

We are not sure if we will return to the date festival next year. If we do, though, we will definitely go on the second weekend and if Chef Nishantha is still at the Tilal, we will most certainly stay there!

Our trip to the Liwa Oasis followed the path of the ancient desert travelers. OK, so we are in our air conditioned Vette traveling along a modern highway and they were riding camels or walking over monstrous sand dunes. It still was an extraordinary experience to know that we traveled the same route and survived to tell the story.  ‘Traveling Sands,’ author Andrew Taylor comments that, “Arabia changes the traveler – they are touched by the spirit of the desert and its people. The peace and stillness of the sands . . . affected them all.” We second that!

Post Script:

Camel’s milk . .  .  the week after our trip we tried it. I was surprised to find it readily available in the market. It was really quite tasty, similar to cow’s milk, and if you didn’t tell someone what they were drinking they wouldn’t know the difference!

Loops of Shame . . . coming home was a bit of an ordeal due to some wrong turns but surprising enough the GPS came through and got us back on the highway – definitely will never leave home without it!

Grilled Fish in Ormani spices  . . . we have tried to duplicate the recipe but have two large impediments to meeting Chef Nishanatha’s standards . . . we don’t have a grill (not permitted in our building)  and the fish needs to be very fresh. Guess this will require me making a return visit to the Fish Souq. You have to read the blog “Friendly Fleecing at the Fish Souq” to understand the huge amount of courage this will take. 
Dates . . . at the Iftar dinner we attend at the Centre for Cultural Understanding during Ramadan we once again taste dates. This time they were deliciously prepared and we loved them. Roger has developed a craving for date honey.


4 comments:

  1. exclamation points!

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  2. I love how your posts are always so well detailed and full of observant information.I haven't been to the date festival yet but have been in love with the Emirati dance since I first saw it. Have you seen the women and girls dance with their hair, swinging it back and forth and doing a little hand wave? It's lovely, maybe one day I will have you over and we can try it? LOL
    I have some nice,similar photos from my kids' school international days. The Emirati stalls are always extravagant with the women baking, men shelling oysters (is shelling the right term?) and the men of course dancing for hours...waving the swords to the sound of traditional music and poetry...That part and the sweet dumplings (leqeemat)are my faves.
    My husband uses date honey exclusively in his tea,on pancakes, in everything! Have Roger give it a try if he hasn't already...Best, Z

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  3. Where can I go to see the women and girls dance and the men twirling their swords? This is a must do while we are here. And yes, Roger discovered date honey and loves it too!

    P.S. Having spent many years in New Orleana, LA, USA - the oyster capital of the world - I know the proper term . . one "schucks" oysters. Yummy, they are sooo good.

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  4. The most amazing views from the top of the tower and also photo opportunity. Here you can see the city, the Gulf and the Desert Safari Dubai.

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