We haven’t ridden any camels on this trip, but we ate camel burgers for lunch Thursday. And Friday morning we spent an hour or so at the Emirati version of Camels R Us.
As a culinary option, I’m not sure I understand where camel meat fits in this part of the world. Locals have told us it’s popular and considered quite healthy. On the other hand, we haven’t often seen it on the menu. The place where we ate it was in the restored historical district in Dubai, and pretty touristy. It served not only camel meat but also claimed to make burgers from zebra, ostrich, rabbit, Cape buffalo, gnu, and other antelope, including oryx (which to the best of my knowledge is still severely endangered.) We were kind of shocked; had visions of evil poachers dancing in our heads. On the other hand, we knew that camels are not endangered. And we were hungry. The patties, topped with cheese, had a coarser texture than ground beef, but the flavor was meaty and delicious.
We had this meal on the day we flew back from Oman to the UAE. The historical district, where we wanted to spend a little more time, is not far from the airport, so after we picked up our rental car, Steve valiantly got us there through nightmarish traffic. After lunch, we headed away from the gulf to Al Ain, a city I had wanted to visit ever since I read about its huge date palm oasis — inhabited by people for around 7,000 years and recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In planning that outing, I also read about Al Ain’s camel souk; one website claimed it’s the last big one of its kind in the UAE. That sounded intriguing too, so we added it to our To Do list for Saturday morning.
I was a bit nervous. Both Lonely Planet’s write-up and travelers’ online comments mentioned that men sometimes pressured tourists into paying for guide service through the gritty marketplace. Some reviewers even described being lured into camel stalls by what they thought was a friendly offer to pet a baby camel and then being forced to pay an extortionate fee — even locked in until they coughed up the dough.
But our experience proved nothing like that. It took us a little while to find the market, which is located in back of a fancy shopping mall off a major road. Once parked, we were surprised by how clean and organized and ENORMOUS the area is! Six long rows of pens arranged around two big yards contained what we estimated to be well over 1000 camels. Each row had a roofed section that provided shade and a fenced area open to the sky. Pick-up trucks for loading the animals could be pulled into the yards.
In the hour or so we spent strolling around, we didn’t see any women anywhere. Almost all the men wore robes and headgear (turbans or robes or some variation). A few guys tried the baby-camel-photo hustle, but it seemed half-hearted. A few asked where we were from or if we wanted to buy a camel. From these we learned that we could purchase a camel for meat for about $830, but a milking animal would cost $5,000 to $10,000. Other camels were being sold for their hair-production (a la sheep), and we assumed that some were studs and racers. God knows what they would set one back.
Equally fascinating was the variety in the animals — not just camel tan, but rich browns…
and creamy white and even freckled ones.
I have some videos of angry camels being wrestled into truck beds (if the Internet weren’t so poky I’d tried to upload it). But for the most part, the animals engaged in the camel-ish behaviors I’ve found so charming in the past: hoovering up their grain and grasses and chewing it with gusto, staring at us with evident curiosity, batting their beautiful long lashes.
After we left the camel souk, we drove to the nearby oasis. It was close to 100 degrees, but in the shade provided by the palm fronds, strolling wasn’t intolerable. It was peaceful, even beautiful. But in my opinion, camels are more entertaining.
All good fun; except Steve driving in that traffic