We join a free heritage tour in Al Ain and finds out more about local traditions in the Garden City
Postcard: The uzba plays a rewarding role in Emirati life
To train a racing falcon, you need to have the patience of a dove. The regimen consists of two daily sessions in the desert, at first light and late in the afternoon, in which the saqr (falcon) is put through its paces as it makes low, beelines directly towards its target.
Ahmed, our young, cheerful Emirati Nissan Patrol driver, explains this to us as we cruise down Nahil-Qurn bint Saud Road. We are on the outskirts of Al Ain – the convoy of about a dozen four-wheel-drive vehicles left the National Museum 25 minutes ago and is navigating half a dozen of the Garden City’s dizzying roundabouts before finally landing in this expansive stretch of road.
We are flanked by barren red desert, which makes the lone, kandura-clad figure, with his mighty bird, that much more striking.
Ahmed’s knowledge is not only as a result of being one of the guides of the free three-hour Travel Through Our Traditions tour, organised by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, but thanks to personal experience of training his own legion of birds.
The art of falcon-rearing is as much about commerce as tradition, he says. A champion falcon is much sought after for its progeny, with prices fetching up to Dh1 million. But you must not be too greedy,
“Let’s say a person comes to you and says I really love your falcon and I really want to purchase it from you. If he offers a decent price, just sell it.
“If you don’t, he will walk away disappointed, but then will give your eagle the evil eye. Then the bird will be useless. I know a guy who refused to sell his falcon to someone and three days later it died.”
But the hard sell is not part of the Emirati style, he says – it is about building connections. If your relations are on solid ground and your friend owns some wild stock, then expect an invitation to the family “uzba” – a camel farm that doubles as a desert holiday home.
This is the main stop on our tour, with the compound located on a nondescript street off the main road. At first glance, it resembles a work site more than a place of residence.
The land is neatly split in two: one half is taken by an open space housing a trio of camels, a few goats and chickens – all divided with wire fencing; while the other is the residents’ quarters.
The latter is split into three rectangular white brick buildings: the first contains the majlis (complete with big-screen TV and cable); the second is the kitchen; and the third the sleeping quarters.
Built seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the residents’ backyard view of ceaseless undulating sand dunes is priceless.
Over a seemingly never-ending supply of legamat (sweet deep-fried dough) and karak (milky tea), our Emirati host, Mohammed Al Dhaheri – who walks around with his proud, blindfolded falcon on his arm – explains that the uzba plays an important role in Emirati society.
“It is one of those features that dates back to hundreds of years,”
“People would come here and relax from their journey. They would then share and discuss the news that was affecting their family and community.”
When it comes to the camels, they are also in tune with the uzba’s chilled vibe. Two kneel in a blissful state, while the other looks droopily on as camera phones are shoved in its face.
I ask Mohammed why one camel’s feet are loosely tied?
“She is a racing camel and is recovering from training,” he says. “Normally, after an exercise session, we try to restrict its movements. We don’t want it run around too much and instead relax for a bit.”
Indeed, there is not much you can do here other than relax and soak up the desert vibes.
This why is the tour’s English translator, a Moroccan also named Mohammed, enjoys these outings.
A resident of Al Ain for two decades, he says the city’s tranquil nature and expansive vistas remains its enduring calling card.
“Things always change. Over the past few years, we have more cars on the road and more people are moving in,” he says.
“But there is always a sense of space – you can always drive a little bit and see these great sights and you just calm down. I don’t want to ever lose that.”
The last Travel Through Our Traditions tour this season runs on February 17 from 3.30pm to 6.30pm. The meeting point is Al Ain National Museum. For more information about the tours visit www.visitalain.ae