A traditional dish in the Arabic Desert
Until a few years ago Saturday was the first day of the week in Saudi Arabia. The weekend started on Thursday afternoon. Regularly my Saudi colleagues went for a traditional dish in the desert. I was the only ‘not-Saudi’ to join them.
Off to the desert
We left in a convoy of Land Cruisers and other large 4WD’s towards Rub Al Khali, The Empty Quarter of the Arabic Desert. On arrival we reduced the pressure of the tires to be able to defy the sandy dunes. It only took one push on a button on the dashboard. We glided at full speed over the dunes, in a way only locals are able to. In the back of our big pickup baskets with picnic utilities rattled softly against each other. Today we would share a traditional meal in the desert. A meal of rice with lamb or goat, prepared by the men in a large pot over the campfire.
We sit on hand knotted carpets in the sand with the brightest Milky Way I have ever seen glistening over our heads. The lovely warm breeze of today is replaced by a freezing cold northern wind. An old respected Saudi picks at some wood to light the campfire with. Next to him is a basket with traditional coffee and teapots, dented and blackened by the heat of smouldering coals. He tells in an almost whispering voice about life in this unfriendly environment, about the way his ancestors survived the extreme weather conditions and the search for food and water. His animated telling makes me hang on each and every word he says. My respect for the ancient desert people and Bedouins who still live in this harsh nature rises by the minute.
Dates and Oud
Meanwhile, a dish with smouldering wood goes from hand to hand. It’s Oud (pronounced as A-oud), wood from Agar trees, that scents like a mixture of balsamic, vanilla, amber and nutmeg. Depending on the quality, the price of Oud can be as high as $ 100,000 per kilogram. The men slowly wave the aromatic smoke under their clothes as a fragrance and for its medicinal properties.
The old man takes a big coffee pot off the fire with a long wooden stick and pours it into small cups. The aroma of freshly brewed Arabian coffee mixed with the complex and pleasing odour of Oud fills the air. The men endlessly praise the quality of the coffee and Oud and discuss each and every detail. Small platters with various dates are distributed, followed by stories about their religious significance, the different tastes and varieties and their importance for health.
The atmosphere between us is friendly and fraternal. We laugh, listen to each other’s knowledge and ideas and tell even more stories. I slowly doze off by the lilting sounds of Arabic conversations of these people with whom I feel at home. But then a loud audible hum of engines disturbs the serene setting. Two large car headlights shine their light over our campfire. From a distance I see two men jump out of the car, putting rugs on the floor followed by shiny bowls filled with rice, lamb, hummus and flat bread. They leave just as quickly as they came. Completely puzzled by the scene I look at my neighbour: ‘A traditional dish? “No”, he says shrugging, “one of life’s little luxuries”.