The dallah, or the Arabic coffee pot, was just pulled off the wood fire with a fresh brew of light cardamom coffee as the first guests walked in. They were three young Emirati men who had just finished their military service, and some of their friends.
Ahmad Nasser stood up from the soft, comfortable red cushions and carpets surrounding the fire, to greet them.
‘Marhaba, shabaab,’ he welcomed his guests, inquiring about their health and about their families, in true Emirati greeting fashion.
One of his guests, Arif Al Mesaabi, replied in verse, another Bedouin tradition. His ‘I’m fine, thank you’ were a few lines of improvised poetry in local dialect, praising his host for his great hospitality. With everyone comfortably sat around the fire, Arabic coffee, dates and sweets served, a conversation quickly started about the experience of the army service ‘graduates’.
‘It was tough, especially in the beginning. Sometimes, we only had three minutes to eat our lunch, and one night we had to camp out, in the desert, without any equipment; no tent, no sleeping bag and no blanket. It was really cold,’ says Hamed, one of the army serviceman.
‘This experience pushes you to the limit, and I got to learn that I’m much stronger than I thought I was. In a way, I’m quite sad that is finished and I now have to return to my old job,’ he adds.
Moving on from one subject to another, the chatting went on until the small hours of the night, when some people went home, and some went to sleep under the starry night sky.
This was the start of a typical weekend in an Emirati desert camp. Throughout the winter, hundreds camps spread across the UAE deserts, a reminder of old Bedouin traditions. Some local families rent a camp from a specialised company that set it up and also maintain it for them. Most, though, prepare and set up everything themselves. Usually, the camp has at least one sleeping tent - large enough for six to eight adults - and a majlis, a guest receiving opened tent, as well as a few smaller tents for cooking and keeping supplies, and portable bathrooms. An electricity generator and water tank are always available.
Larger and more sophisticated camps add all kinds of luxuries or comforts, like a TV screen, used mostly to play video games, or a caravan with fully equipped bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom.
‘My camp is quite small,’ says Ahmad Nasser, who set up his desert camp in Al Faya desert, between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
‘We are camping out here, in the desert, ever since I can remember. As soon as the weather cools down, we set up the camp, normally in November, and we stay until March, when it starts to get warm,’ he goes on.
‘This year, we did the camp at the end of October. It took about 3-4 days to set it up. It usually takes several days, depending how big the camp is, how many tents and how many men are working on it. We had five people, but if we had more we would finish it in two days.’
‘We have a water tank, which we brought from Musaffah. It’s 1000 litres. It should be enough water for two months. It’s mostly for cooking and washing, not for drinking. We bring bottled water for that. Over there, near the water tank, is the kitchen tent. It’s a small one, only 4x4 metre. We don’t cook inside, but we keep all our food and cooking utensils inside it. We do all the cooking outdoors. In fact, next to the kitchen tent are the gas cylinders that we use for preparing food. We don’t use charcoal, only gas for cooking because it’s easier to control the heat temperature.’
Like with all camps, Ahmad’s desert establishment is protected by a one-metre high portable cloth fence. High above it, lights hang from the rope tied between wooden poles surrounding the perimeter. A green grass carpet was laid on the sand, in the middle of the camp, surrounding the fire pit. All around it, Arabic mattresses and cushions are placed for people to sit or lay down and, right behind this set up, is the imposing majlis, an opened tent fixed on tall, wooden poles, furnished with carpets, blankets, mattresses, cushions and pillows.
‘The majlis is nine by eight metres. We brought it from Al Khatem, which is about 20 kilometres from here, because that’s where they sell the big tents. This old, traditional design you cannot find it in Abu Dhabi city; only in Al Khatem or in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. The material is cotton, so if it rains the water will go through,’ says Ahmad.
‘Abu Dhabi doesn’t get much rain, but if it does, we just fold the tent and keep it protected from the water. There are also traditional water proof tents, made of thick camel or goat wool, which you can buy these days mostly from up north, in Ras Al Khaimah.’
Sometimes, people use the majlis for overnight sleeping, but Ahmad also provides a special, well insulated tent for that, which would remain clean and dry under any sand or rain storm.
The third white tent is the ‘room’ of the camp’s employee, hired to take care of the camp, keep things clean and tidy and sometimes cook, as well.
The Pakistani cook
‘We hired the same Pakistani guy as last year. He is already familiar with us and the camp, since we are in the same place as in the previous year, so he knows how to reach the camp, where things are and he also remembers how to make our rice dishes. Last year we taught him how to cook traditional Emirati dishes,’ says Ahmad.
‘We give him a salary; we ask him how much he wants, and we pay him monthly. This year we give him Dh1,200 per month. This is his second job. He already has his own work during daytime, and when finishes he comes here. He stays from 5pm until the next morning, at 8 am’.
‘Our camp is small, only four tents, so one person is enough to take care of it. His main job is to care for the camp. If he has nothing to do, we ask him to do the cooking for us, but if he is busy, we cook.’
About five kilometres away from the main road, the camp is set along an unpaved truck road, right in front of Al Faya’s tall, light coloured sand dunes. In fact, no desert camp in the emirate was allowed deep inside the desert, following new regulations enforced by the Abu Dhabi municipality this year.
Anyone who wishes to have a desert camp must pay a fee to the municipality and must have the camp located in a designated area. The new rules are aimed mainly at stopping people from littering the desert. In the past years, piles of rubbish, anything from plastic bottles to tents were left behind by campers, in places where no rubbish collection vehicles could access.
From this winter, the municipality patrols all its designated camping locations and, if it finds litter around a camp, it closes it down. Be it late at night or early in the morning, Ahmad and his camp partners take their rubbish bags with them any time they leave the camp, leaving it on the side of the road for the garbage collection.
This season, Ahmad joined forces with five friends and cousins to split all costs, starting with the Dh3,000 spent on the outer fence, the lights and tents. The six of them are also responsible for everything needed for the camp - food, water, dealing with any situation like sandstorm or broken lights. Everyday there are two people, who have to come here to check the camp, and to make sure their camp employee has what he needs - food, toiletries, blankets.
‘We have both friends and families who come here. When family ladies want to come, my mum or my wife for example, we tell my uncle and my cousins that it’s a family day today, so they and their friends will not come. In all other days my friends and my male relatives are always here,’ says Ahmad.
‘We gather here every evening, not just weekends. After we finish work, usually about 6pm, we come to the camp. Every evening we make a fire and gather around it, chatting, drinking tea and coffee, have our dinner. Sometimes one of the six guys bring their own friends and we show them around the camp and share our stories, building new friendships.’
‘These desert camps are part of our traditions. My father and my grandfather taught us about life in the desert in the old days. Like them, I love the desert. It takes me out of the daily routine, out of the city life, out of the noise, traffic and busy life. Out here, in the desert, you forget about your problems. You are among friends, under the stars, in very nice weather.’
Before oil dramatically changed the lifestyle of Emiratis, the desert was home not only to Bedouin tribes, but coastal and oasis folk too, who would often travel through the desert for trade or in search of cooler weather.
Large tents handmade from camel and goat wool were used as bedrooms and living rooms. In front of the main majlis the fire pit was arranged, where people would sit in the cooler nights to exchange news or entertain themselves with stories and poetry.
In the early morning, fresh bread was cooked in the sand, while a fresh dallah of Arabic coffee brewed on the charcoal left over from the night before and, when available, dates and honey were added to the breakfast. At night, the main meal was rice or saloona – vegetable stew – with meat if the men and their falcons or saluki dogs were successful at hunting. Camels, goats or sheep were only sacrificed for important events or guests visiting from afar. Not much has changed in the desert camps of today.
Sure, nowadays there are electric lights, richer food and even water heaters for hot showers, but essentially today’s generations re-live their forefathers’ lives in these desert camps.
‘Arabic coffee and tea are still offered to guests as soon as they arrive, along with traditional sweets and dates. All our food is cooked here, at the camp, by ourselves, and not brought from restaurants in the nearby towns,’ says Arif Al Mesaabi.
During school holidays, some families spend their entire winter vacation out in the desert. There are times when even strangers passing by stop at the camp, just to say hello. Often, they have their own camp, not to far away. When guests arrive from as far as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, they too prefer to ‘lodge’ at their hosts’ desert camp rather than their city villas.
‘Desert camping tradition comes from our history, our roots. We are living in a desert environment. Our great-grandfathers used to live in the desert and that’s why we love returning to the desert, because we belong to this place,’ points out Arif.
Before we built cities, we used to live in tents, in the desert. It really is very peaceful, very simple, very nice, way of life. For me, what I like best about it is the atmosphere. It’s very relaxing and quiet, and I enjoy the company of the people around me. We gather, sit around the fire, keep warm with tea and coffee, share food and stories and enjoy the nature and this simple way of life. As you can see, it’s just a few tents and sand everywhere, so it’s really lovely.’
He barely finishes his sentence when two more four-wheel vehicles pull in front of the camp. Another group of friends just arrived from a family funeral in Saudi Arabia. It was time for another round of fresh Arabic coffee.