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Our All-Star Weekend in the UAE

Michael's Blog

A selection of stories brought to you by delicious Félix & Norton cookies. 

Our All-Star Weekend in the UAE

MIchael Eskenazi

We had been working very hard to get the cookie store open, and now it was time for us to explore and get a real taste of the Emirates, courtesy of our host.  Saturday's plan was to visit the family farm, located in the desert about 45 minutes from Al Ain.  The drive was stunning as we drove along another pristine highway that follows the border with neighboring Oman, a simple fence straddling the border through the sand dunes.

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We arrived at the farm just as Swaidan's brother pulled up in his 3 day old Hyundai Genesis, so Swaidan and I hopped into to examine his new acquisition.  I was quite surprised to see that the seats and visors were still covered in the plastic that it had been shipped with, the delivery sticker still on the windshield, and even the foam door protectors attached to the door moldings.  It seems that many drivers never remove these things despite temperatures reaching 50C.  I guess our grandmothers' couches were not alone in this tradition!

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We then went for a tour of the farm.  Cows, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, even fish were being farmed there, serviced by water that came from wells and had to go through desalinization before it could be used for farming.  

They had also built a large greenhouse in which they were growing what we call Lebanese cucumbers, complete with giant water cooled fans to keep the temperatures down in the summer time. 

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After the tour, it was time for the big event.  Swaidan had been promising this meal to us ever since a visit to Montreal a year ago.  Our lunch had been cooking since the early morning in a pit buried in the sand.  It was time to retrieve it and serve it.  

Swaidan began by digging up the sand.

Swaidan began by digging up the sand.

Then the first cover was carefully removed to reveal the cooking chamber.

Then the first cover was carefully removed to reveal the cooking chamber.

The lamb was wrapped in various spices, herbs and a local type of grass that added some wonderful flavors.

The lamb was wrapped in various spices, herbs and a local type of grass that added some wonderful flavors.

Underneath the lamb was a large pot of rice that had been cooking at the same time, and collecting the juices and drippings from the lamb.

Underneath the lamb was a large pot of rice that had been cooking at the same time, and collecting the juices and drippings from the lamb.

The aromas of both the rice and the meat were so tantalizing, and we were eagerly anticipating the meal.  Time to serve the meal on the large platters, one for the men and another for the ladies.

The aromas of both the rice and the meat were so tantalizing, and we were eagerly anticipating the meal.  Time to serve the meal on the large platters, one for the men and another for the ladies.

The platter was set down on the tablecloth in the middle of the carpet, under a thatched roof to shelter us from the sun.

The platter was set down on the tablecloth in the middle of the carpet, under a thatched roof to shelter us from the sun.

Ok, so not exactly as Emily Post would prefer, but it was an amazing experience.

Ok, so not exactly as Emily Post would prefer, but it was an amazing experience.

As we had learned the day before, the traditional way of eating was with the fingers.  Although they had offered cutlery, I wanted to share the experience as they would normally enjoy it.    The very young lamb had been slaughtered just that morning, and the meat was the most tender and flavorful lamb that I have ever enjoyed.  The rice was also incredibly tasty, and I literally gorged myself on handfuls of lamb and rice mixed together.  It was so much fun as well to share a communal plate with Swaidan, his son, brothers and nephew.  He assisted me in uncovering the tastiest and most tender morsels; although I did pass on the lamb's head which was shared and enjoyed by the others.  

After the meal, it was time to wash up and clean our greasy fingers.  The men paused to pray together, and I found it very moving to see their devotion.  Prayers completed, it was time for games.  We had brought a gift of a table hockey game for Swaidan's children, and we assembled it and the competition began with great enthusiasm.  I was told that the game board was in frequent use for the rest of the weekend.  

What a sight to see in the middle of the desert!

What a sight to see in the middle of the desert!

We headed back to Al Ain, passing through the dunes again, and by a huge housing development where the UAE government was building rows and rows of large homes that would not look out of place in Blainville or Candiac.  These homes were being built to be given free of charge to native citizens of the UAE.  Talk about an amazing social program!  We detoured through Jebel Hafeet, a 1,249 meter high mountain that has a park at the bottom with hot springs and picnic areas, and a lookout at the top.  The Sheikh had built two palaces- one at the park near the bottom and one at the summit where there was also a hotel. It was certainly surprising to find such a large mountain in the middle of the desert.

The Sheikh's palace at the base of the mountain.

The Sheikh's palace at the base of the mountain.

The view from the summit.

The view from the summit.


Sheikh zayed Mosque- Abu Dhabi

We spent our Saturday night working at the mall, continuing our training of the employees.  Sunday morning, after another training  session, we set out for Abu Dhabi, to tour the city and see some prospective locations.  At our first stop, we rendezvous'd with Swaidan's partner at one of the most truly incredible and beautiful sites we have ever visited anywhere in the world-The Sheikh Zayed Mosque.  

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Completed in 2007, it is the largest mosque in the UAE, and the 8th largest mosque in the world. Sheikh Zayed, the beloved late President of the UAE, is buried in a tomb alongside the mosque.   All women and any underdressed men were given coverings to respect the muslim traditions.  A project that involved the finest architects, designers,builders and materials from around the world, and every view took our breath away.

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The carpet is over 400 meters long!

The carpet is over 400 meters long!

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It was truly an amazing weekend of touring with experiences that will remain etched in our memories forever.  We were truly regretting that we had but one more day left in the UAE.  The story of that last day and a wrap up will be posted in the next and final installment in this blog.