Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Day with the Saeed Rashid Al Shehhi Family, Part 2

Saeed was driving, so no problem!
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK,) where the wedding of Yaqoob’s daughter was held, is the largest city in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. There are seven Emirates in the UAE, which can be compared to states in the US, and the name of largest cities and the Emirates are the same: Abu Dhabi is in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Dubai is in Dubai . . .  you get the idea. Whereas Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most westernized, most developed of the seven Emirates, RAK is much smaller. For comparison, Dubai’s population is 1.8 million, Abu Dhabi is half that, and RAK, at 170,000 is one tenth (2008 figures, source: Wikipedia.)
Ghalila is only 7 km from the border between UAE and Oman

Saeed lives in Ghalila, a village north of RAK where the sandy desert soil meets the gravel that is washed out of the mountains, making for an interesting landscape to explore. After lunch we headed east toward the Al Hajar Mountains. For me, this was a great treat because I miss the Sierra Nevada, Carson, and Pine Nut mountains surrounding our house in Gardnerville. I’ve been enjoying Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but the rugged beauty of this area was a welcome antidote to city life.

Building on an alluvial fan puts residents at risk during flash flood events.
In just a few minutes, we felt far from the beach and the Gulf. There isn’t much precipitation here but when it does rain, flash floods rumble through the wadis (dry rivers) carrying rocks and whatever else is in the way and depositing them at the foot of the slope in the shape of a fan or delta. Over time alluvial fans are formed. Vegetation grows on large alluvial fans, which hold soil and water, and they are an attractive place for people to settle and live. We passed one where I saw small trees growing and what looked like shacks or houses. That’s great till the next big flood, I almost said aloud. Then I remembered that Mark’s and my house is on an alluvial fan too.
Wadi Ghalilli Dam. The reservoir is large in area, shallow in depth.

We drove to the Wadi Ghalili dam; the reservoir was dry but Saeed said it fills quickly during the rains. As we stood on the dam at the base of the surrounding mountains, we listened to the peace and quiet. Where Mark and I live now, next to Al Bateen Airport, we can hear jets and helicopters coming and going several times a day, but the peace and quiet felt like home. Saeed has a strong connection to these imposing mountains. He told me that as a boy, he would scramble up to the top of the steep slopes. He was fascinated by rocks and curious about the processes that formed them, which inspired him to become educated and led to his many academic achievements. Like many Emiratis, he enjoys tent camping, and Tom has said that we will be invited soon. I can only imagine what a typical Arab family desert camp looks like; I wonder how it compares to the tents we saw at the Camel Festival? I can hardly wait to find out.
Saeed’s eldest son was with us, and I asked what his name is. “Ghaith,” Saeed said, even spelling it for us. An easy one!

You may have noticed that I don’t use very many first names in my stories. I'm  slow to learn names and I have to write them down and practice them over and over to learn them. When you’re just meeting a person, they might wonder why you are asking them to spell their name as you write it down, or worse, whispering it over and over to yourself. Here, it’s hard to learn names that are long and confusing to a foreign ear. And they don’t use “Mr.” and “Mrs.” here like we do in the US.

I like Ghaith's name for several reasons,
not the least of which is it's easy to remember.
Sometimes when I know the name or could find out what it is, I don’t feel familiar enough with that person. For example, I think of Saeed’s wife as just that – his wife. Maybe after we've had a chance to sit and talk, I will refer to her by her first name but until then it feels presumptuous.  

It was the same with the bride's name. I asked the woman next to me at the table and was told “Fatima.” Yet it wasn’t on the invitation and we didn’t meet the bride. So I chose to refer to her as “the bride” and her mom as “Yaqoob’s wife” or “the bride’s mother,” because that’s how I think of them.
One more comment on names. I have noticed in my reading that sometimes names translate to “mother of” and “father of.” I just finished a memoir called Married to a Bedouin and the author, Marguerite Van Geldermalsen, is given the Arab name Fatima but becomes Umm Salwa when her daughter Salwa is born and Umm Raami when her son Raami is born.

Abu Dhabi means “Father of the Gazelle.”
As we drove out of Wadi Ghalila, Saeed told us that Ghaith’s name means ‘rain, but not rain in a small place; rain over a wide region. Like the kind the UAE and the western United States need right now. This is the rainy season, but it’s been a dry winter so far. It’s so dry that on December 30th, prayers for rain were offered in mosques all across the UAE. Saeed also told us about a very rich, rare and expensive honey, the best in the UAE, which comes from the RAK mountains, where not many plants grow. If we want to buy some we need to let him help us, to be sure that we don’t get a cheap counterfeit product.
Saeed's father
Rashid Al Shehhi

Next we drove through the mining and cement plants; Mark and Tom were interested in these. Saeed once worked there. Saeed’s father’s picture is displayed in the roundabout there alongside the UAE and RAK leaders; he’s retired now but during his career he was an important businessman in the region. In the early 1960's he owned the first Range Rover and television in the area. He bought them from the British military, who were withdrawing as the Trucial States, which is what the Emirates were called before they united, were created.

Deja view: camel racetrack
After a swing by Saeed’s Ghalila beach house, which is occupied by a brother and his wife, and looked very similar to his other house, we headed out toward the camel farm, in a place called Lahlailla on the coastal sand flats. Tom, Mark, and Lucy were wondering aloud how well the SUV would handle driving on the sand while I was in the back seat experiencing a bit of déjà vu. You will understand if you’ve read the Camel Festival story. We have nothing to worry about with Saeed at the wheel, I thought to myself. He’s probably driven around in this place many thousands of times, beginning when he was a young boy driving that Range Rover before there were any roads.
I looked out the window at the tracks in the sand ahead of us and asked, “Is this the camel racetrack?” The answer was yes, and I silently reflected on the fact that a camel racetrack is nothing like a horse racetrack. No flags, no stands. Of course; it makes sense now. I wonder if they set up tents out there during the races?
You can see the camel corrals of Lahlailla in the lower right hand third of the photo.

The camels are in an area where several camel operations are clustered together. The surrounding large land parcels are owned by the camel farmers, but rather than set up separate operations they formed a sort of cooperative. Corrals are adjacent to one another in one place, thus maximizing open space and sharing access to water, food, and waste disposal.

Saeed’s father was at his corral, feeding and caring for the camels. Some were in small corrals, others were tied to posts. Camels are imposing animals, and they seem curious about humans who approach them. They usually come over and take a good look at you. Lucy and I petted one on the neck a little but it didn’t really seem to care about that one way or the other; I’m sure that each has its own personality.
Hello, camels!

I was wandering off taking photos when I noticed everyone else gathered in front of one camel. Saeed’s father was standing near the camel’s hind end, and as I watched he began spinning the tail, like he was winding the camel up. Then he barked out a few words. Suddenly the camel opened its mouth and a big pink balloon-like tongue flopped out accompanied by a weird gurgling sound. The sound made Mark do his goofy giggle, and Tom laughed so hard he had to sit down.
Winding up . . .
Letting go: gluuuurrrrrrgggghhhhh . . .
. . . we're easily entertained.

The other highlight of the camel farm was the mother camel and her seven day old calf. She protected her baby from Lucy and me as we got near the fence but when Saeed’s father entered the enclosure, she not only didn’t move to protect, she allowed him to help her calf nurse. This relationship between humans and their treasured camels is one of the great hallmarks of Arab culture and heritage.
Oh, a baby! Seven days old, still wobbly.

Mother, calf, and three generations of the Rashid al Shehhdy tribe.

The sun was getting low, and we needed to get going. I suddenly remembered an Arab word that I had seen in a couple of books, so I said “Yallah!” It’s an Arab slang word that means “Let’s go!” Saeed and his father smiled at each other, nodded and said “Yallah.”

We left Saeed’s father in the place where he is happiest; with his beloved camels. As we crossed the sandy coastal flatland, Saeed told us that the sea breeze helps keep Ras Al Khaimah cool in summer; in the winter people sometimes move higher into the mountains.
Happiest Place on Earth

We couldn’t thank Saeed enough. What a day. I’m already looking forward to our next trip to see more of the natural beauty, wildlife, and Arab culture that Ras Al Khaimah has to offer.
Thank you, Rashid Al Shehhi Family!

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