I strolled around the base camp, sipping a warm lemon-mint tea in a paper cup as Nazakat, my 32-year-old driver, walked over to adjust the air pressure in the tires of the Land Cruiser. Chunky with bunches of fresh mint, the tea cost about 35 dirhams, or nearly $10 US dollars.
“How much?” I asked.
“About 15 or 20 psi at least,” he replied as he knelt in his pure white thobe by the front passenger wheel, air hissing from the tire as he spun his black ball cap backward, a Dubai logo emblazoned on it in gold. German-Syrian trance music by a group called Shkoon pumped from the open windows of the luxury SUV.
“Dropping the tire pressure improves traction in the sand,” he added.
I nodded as I sipped the tea, hopeful that we wouldn’t get stuck or puncture a tire. To a fault, I worried incessantly.
“Let me get the others and we will go,” he smiled broadly. Tall and lean, he had a gentle spirit. He was from Hyderabad, Pakistan.
“Shukran,” I replied in Arabic, pressing my right palm to my chest with a slight nod as he started to walk away. “Thank you.”
I turned, and a young falconer offered his bird to me as his photographer approached. They were cheerful, shorter and rounder than Nazakat.
“I take your picture,” the photographer insisted, nodding. He wasn’t asking. This was business.
“Nahin dhanyavaad,” I replied from my limited memory bank of Indian phrases. “No thank you. But could I take yours?”
The falconer, dressed in formal Bedouin attire, looked awkwardly at the photographer.
“I would rather take your picture,” I replied, smiling broadly. “I will pay you, but I did not come here to take pictures of me. I would like a picture of you to remember this day.”
They each shrugged and grinned. Most tourists wanted their own pictures taken, impossibly perfect and Instagrammable with the imposter hashtag, #livingmybestlife. The falconer stood there in his white thobe. He wore a stunning black and gold keffiyeh on his head while holding a very stoic, hooded, and disinterested peregrine. I didn’t want to snag a selfie. I wanted to learn more about falconry. This wasn’t about me, for once. It was exhilarating to lose myself here.
Falconry is revered in the Emirates, borne from the traditional Arab values of courage, honor and nobility. It also shares a heritage with nature and animal conservation, a key aspect of my new work here in the Middle East, as well as a very lasting symbol of sport and friendship.
I was living this exotic, strange new dream, having suddenly uprooted myself from Tennessee, of all places, to move to Tabuk province in the Hejaz Mountains of northwestern Saudi Arabia.