Go West, Young Woman, Go West!!!!!!

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Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the United Arab Emirates.  Most first time visitors to the UAE, want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West.  So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

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About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ”  or “M ZED” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year.  Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel  and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”.  For just seven dirhams  (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat here (Ana orido ann a kola hena) and one for the road”.

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Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where literally, millions of dirhams are made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals.

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If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 14-28), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a first place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits  approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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