The camel buckled at the knees and grunted loudly as three men tried to drag it onto the back of a truck. One of them struck the beast with his whip and it bellowed even louder, refusing to budge, perhaps sensing the fate that awaited it if it cooperated.
We looked on helplessly, quietly rooting for this stubborn and strangely magnificent creature as it roared its dissent.
“Mommy,” my son whispered. “He doesn’t want to go in there.”
We were at the Camel Market of Al Ain, where an adult dromedary go for an upwards of several thousand dollars. Calves and thoroughbreds cost a lot more. Located at a dusty sprawl a good 8 kilometers outside of town, the market also sold different kinds of livestock, which were all kept in holding pens.
Traders with worn, weather-beaten faces called out to us, asking us to cuddle their goats and sheep for a few dirhams in return. Some gawked at me openly, for a woman rarely drops by in these areas. The customers were all men too, and they come here to haggle over a camel – or several – for meat, milk or even potential race champions.
My boys, however, seemed keen on the idea of a pet dromedary. After trying his luck several times – “Mommy, can I get one too? Pretty please?” – our eldest resigned himself to his camel-less fate. We left empty-handed – and not to mention a little distressed after witnessing the live transaction.
Al Ain is a pretty little city and the only site on the Gulf with a UNESCO-World Heritage status. The place was extraordinary, not just because it’s one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlement but because it is surprisingly lush and green, making it difficult to believe we were still in the desert.
The city is fed by a natural spring that flowed from the mountains. The Al Ain Oasis, a park studded with date palms and other fruit trees, gives you a good idea of this ancient irrigation system, or falaj. It was painstakingly dug by hand over 3,000 years ago, enabling the region’s inhabitants to tame the otherwise inhospitable landscape.
The palm trees looked worthless, but they were as valuable to the people as the camel. It has multiple uses: the trunk and bark for building houses, the leaves for making baskets and platters, and the dates for food.
We rented a 3-seater bike at the entrance and pedaled around, relishing the peace and quiet after the chaos of the camel market. The place was bigger than we expected and, although we did get off to explore a bit, the scenery became monotonous after awhile – just rows and rows of trees and the occasional wide-eyed tourist who were just as lost and confused as we were.
After a few wrong turns and several panicked attempts to reboot our cellphone reception, we emerged victoriously from this palm labyrinth on our big, clunky bike. The man working the counter looked genuinely surprised when he saw us – I suppose some people never make it out and survive on dates and a melange of fruits for the rest of their lives.
Since it was Christmas Eve, we celebrated by having a Lebanese dinner at our hotel, the Al Ain Rotana, a sprawling resort with its own massive gingerbread house and a cheerful banner that doesn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ or even “Merry Xmas’ because God forbid, it is haram, but rather ‘Happy Festives’.
At least the view from our room was great.
Like elsewhere in Arabia, they were lovely to children here and servers and diners alike looked benignly upon our children, who had a rip-roaringly good time blowing bubbles while we celebrated Christmas eve with a Lebanese dinner in the garden.
We were relieved that food was a lot easier to come by in Al Ain than in Hatta. One of the most interesting cafes we visited happened to be French-themed. Shakespeare & Co. has an interior that might come off as pompous to some and adorable to others. Dripping with faux crystal chandeliers and stuffed with gilded everything, the interior is a curious mixture of Arabic and Baroque.
The food, Italian with an Arabic twist, is delish, and one even feels compelled to order some tea and drink it with a raised pinkie. (Oh wait, that’s English).
The next day, we visited the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, named for the founding father of the UAE who used to live here.
Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan is a legend. Born at a time when the UAE was still poor and undeveloped, he eventually became the country’s president and remained as one for over 30 years. A man of many talents, he was also a skilled horsemen, falconer and archer – and just when you think you can’t get enough of his good looks in the many paintings and photographs of him all over the country, you come here and you are blown away.
There he was gazing into the distance – a trademark expression – and looking dashing and enigmatic without even trying. There he was looking resplendent on a camel, holding a falcon. There he was taking some time off to smell the flowers – or in his case, a single white rose.
The Al Nahyan family residence was more like a low-lying fort than a palace, with its many rooms and courtyards built from locally sourced materials. There was a room exclusively devoted to making Arabic coffee (because a president needs his caffeine fix to rule effectively), a grand court tent, which Sheikh Zayed used to host guests during the winter…
…and also a Land Rover similar to the one driven by him in the desert to visit Bedouin communities.
There was also a little museum that shows all the past and present rulers of Dubai – mainly, descendants of the Al Nahyan clan. You look around, hoping to spot some female faces but they were strikingly absent.
Another one of Sheikh Zayed’s residence, the imposing sandstone structure of the Al-Jahili Fort rises like a sandcastle from a distance. It was one of the biggest forts in the country and smack bang in a beautifully landscaped park filled with picnicking locals.
The air-conditioned hospitality corner where they welcomed visitors with tea and dates was a nice touch, as was the fascinating permanent exhibition on Wilfred Thesiger, a British adventurer who traversed Arabia’s vast desert not once – but twice! – with the help of bedouins and lived to tell the tale.
This guy was a walking encyclopedia of quotable quotes. Instead of swatting him with a book and asking him to be quiet however, the bedouins embraced him as one of their own and christened him ‘Mubarak bin London.”
The rest of the fort is now home to a smattering of interesting artworks. We had a nice time exploring the place – until my heels poked holes in the tower’s 100-year-old staircase, that is. Then we knew it was time to go.
Christmas evening was a chilly affair, spent among bright lights and throngs of local Arab families in the cheerful expense of an amusement park. Built in 1985 and stuck in a time warp ever since, Hili Fun City is the Gulf’s first ever theme park filled with carnival games, creaky, old-school attractions such as spinning teacups, a 3D amphitheater and a carousel and – this being Arabia – separate entrances for men and women.
Despite its shortcomings, the boys had a grand ol’ time.
As they had another go on the bumper cars, I stood there and, for the first time in my life, felt acutely aware of my feminity. It wasn’t some makeup I could remove or a cloak I could shed. So I did what generations of fierce women before me have done: I wore it proudly.
Al Ain Rotana A massive but rather impersonal resort with top-notch facilities like a beautifully landscaped pool, a large spa and fitness centre as well as several on-site restaurants. Rooms are comfortable, and certain units have balconies that look out to the pool and / or a kitchenette. $$
- Women are expected to dress modestly at the camel market. Local Indian guards might accompany tourists around to keep the traders from getting aggressive – be sure tip them if you appreciate their services. There are also several brick-and-mortar shops in the vicinity selling falcons and salukis – see if you can find them.
- Most attractions in Al Ain are free, but information is sparse so hiring a local guide might help you appreciate the history a bit better.
- Many visitors do Al Ain as a day trip from Dubai or Abu Dhabi but I think one or two nights allows you to relax and take things slow. After all, this small city is a refreshing change from all the steel and skyscrapers.
- Skip Hili Fun City if you aren’t traveling with children – the rides are old and there isn’t any decent eateries inside, unless you’re feeling adventurous. If you are, plan on bringing your own food or leaving early to dine elsewhere.