We were driving home to Al Ain from Dubai in mid-December, when an exuberant voice on the radio announced an amazing upcoming event - The Al Dhafra Camel Festival - a world reknowned exhibition complete with camel beauty pageant, cultural heritage displays, camel and saluki dog racing, a bedouin market, and traditional foods. My heart skipped a beat! I'd been hoping and praying to catch a spectacle such as this filled with photo-ops galore, and it was only four days away, so I began my enthusiastic countdown.
The town where the festival was being held was called Madinat Zayed. Way out in the middle of the Liwa Desert, it was almost halfway between Abu Dhabi and the Saudi border; a six hour roundtrip drive from Al Ain; so after a hardy breakfast and some potent green tea, I set out, all by myself, and arrived safe and sound by 10 am. The Arabian sun was already heating up; the dusty wind churning and burning; and yes, as expected, there were camels everywhere! Unless I was ill-informed, there wasn't a larger gathering of dromedaries in the world, other than at the famous Pushcar Camel Fair in India. I was lost in one-humped heaven!
I buzzed around the massive site for twenty minutes or so in my goofy little white Toyota Yaris, trying to make sense of all the sandy chaos. This was an Emirati festival, not one geared for Westerners, and I was the odd-man-out. Or odd-lady-out, I should say, by the gawking of passing local men, who stared curiously down at me from their lofty SUV's. I pulled over near a couple of Bedouin women sitting in front of a tent, and asked for permission with primitive sign language for a photo. They nodded and smiled, and I clicked! Ah, my first photo-op success of the day, and I was hoping for many more. Right about then, a shiny gold Escalade pulled up, and down came its passenger window.
"Where are you from?" a young man in fancy shades asked, his white Gutrah draped elegantly across his shoulder.
"I'm from America," I replied, hoping with comic nervousnous that this was the right answer.
"What are you doing here?" he went on, and I gave a basic answer with a jittery laugh.
"I'm a photographer. I'm here taking pictures."
"Then why haven't you taken my picture?" he went on incredulously, passing a manicured hand over his pristine scarf before giving me a coy pose.
"Alrighty then," I answered, bringing up my camera for a quick click. "Thanks!" I said, and waved goodbye before rolling on. "This is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel," I said out loud.
My next stop was at the Cultural Heritage Village. Again, I was the only Westerner in sight, just the way I liked it. Off the beaten path. In the real United Arab Emirates, as it once was, before skyscrapers and shopping malls. I was in my element. And clickity click click! I snapped away to my hearts content. Ate yummy fried dough balls (all fairs are the same!) slathered in sweet Yemeni honey and toasted sesame seeds; purchased some delightful Oud incense from an interesting older local woman, and drank aromatic cardomon-laced Arabic coffee served by her darling big-eyed grandson. What a fantastic day I was having! But I had yet to meet, face to face, what I had come here for. Camels. So I jumped back in the car and set out. Ten minutes later, and all alone, I was approaching a paddock full of curious long-necked critters.
Why in the world is this wacky white woman walking over here? watery eyes implored, long lashes batting, velvety noses twitching and sniffing.
"It's okay, babies," I crooned, realizing that they probably didn't know English, but had high hopes that they'd understand and appreciate my loving tone.
Now I must digress for a moment to explain this childish and fool-hearty behavior. A month earlier, I had come across a phenomenal photo, a runner-up from the previous years Abu Dhabi through your Eyes photo contest, a gorgeous sepia pic of a little girl kissing the nose of a loving camel, and I had so related to this image, that it had brought me to tears. Standing here now before these regal beasts, I was absolutely determined, in my lofty middle-age, to become that child. So I placed myself bravely in front of the fence and waited, until the lead camel moved toward me, for what, I knew not. My faith was absurd. This animal could take my face off, if it wanted to, I thought. But still, I didn't budge. It was like some kind of initiation or right of passage that I was putting myself through. How was I going to explain my face mutilation by camel's teeth to my husband? This question hindered me not in the least. And I braced myself calmly, as the camel came right up and squished its nose firmly, but gently against mine. My camel's kiss at last!
Two guys laughed from behind me. I hadn't even noticed them, so transfixed on the camels I'd been. "Sorry!" I exclaimed, backing away from the creatures.
"No problem. No problem," they both assured, Afghani men, I could tell by their dress. "You like camels. It's okay." So I moved forward once again, and the friendly furry beast allowed me to pet on her all that I wanted. I was in animal-love bliss. Turned out to be a female. She literally put her head in my arms and cuddled with me. It was a religious experience, to say the least. And soon, the wacky white woman had an audience. Two Pakistanis, one Indian, one Emirati and a Saudi man were now gathered, along with the two Afghan guys, as I soaked up all the camel love that I could. They even offered to take a couple of pictures with my camera, to freeze the moment in time. And then I took a few pics of them. All the while, I was thinking that this was not an appropriate situation for a lone woman to be in, here in the Middle East. But the vibe remained cordial and innocent, and I put my faith in Allah that I was in good and honorable company. And I was right. When I'd had enough, I said my adieus and departed, with some terrific photos and great memories. And my sweet camel's kiss.