Thursday, January 17, 2008

Camels & Tents

The drive out to Adnan's sister Baheeja’s country home north of Jeddah is mostly dry brown desert all along the way. It is only maybe a 30 minute car ride to get there taking the Madinah Highway. The Sierra Mountain range is visible off in the distance. There are walled villas sprinkled randomly here and there, but in general, the area is fairly remote and sparsely populated.

Several camel corrals or depots are located off the freeway. During one of our drives out there, Adnan delighted me by pulling off the road so I could take closer pictures of the camels. There must have been over 100 camels in each of the lots we saw, including many nursing baby camels. I was thrilled to be able to get out of the car and take pictures of these beasts. A rickety barbed wire fence contained the animals and several camel herders attended each lot. Adnan told me he thought the dark skinned camel herders were Sudanese.

The one-humped dromedary camel is native to Saudi Arabia. There are no two-humped camels here. The camels ranged in color from white to all shades of tan to dark brown. Adnan told me that the white camels are more rare and therefore are more expensive. These camels are available for purchase for their meat, or one can just purchase the fresh camel milk. A full grown camel costs between $750-1,000 US. Adam and I had previously seen camel meat for sale in the meat department of a supermarket. It looks like a very big lean pot roast, but with absolutely no fat. Adnan's mom has prepared dishes for us using camel meat. It's actually pretty good and tastes like lamb, which is the most preferred meat here in Arabia.

Many of the nursing mothers were equipped with a contraption made out of canvas – similar to a bra - to keep the babies from nursing constantly. The purpose of these bras is so that more camel milk is available for sale. Adnan asked one of the guys there to get us some milk, so we watched as three guys milked the camel right in front of us. They had to displace the bra-like contraption and tried to keep the persistent nursing baby away - with great difficulty -while they milked the mommy camel. Squirted into large stainless steel bowls, the milk was bright white and very frothy on top. At a makeshift worktable out in the open air, the milk was then transferred into a large plastic bag and sealed. We got about a gallon of fresh warm camel’s milk for 20 Saudi Riyals, which is about $5 US.

As we continued on our journey, just down the road we could see dozens of tents along the way. There were people actually living in these tents in the middle of the desert. Nowadays, there are not that many Bedouins - gypsies of the desert - actually living in the desert anymore. Many of them have settled in the cities. Seeing these tents struck me as funny because many of the tents had cars parked beside them.

When we arrived at Baheeja's villa about 10 minutes later, Adnan poured me a small shot glass of the still-warm camel's milk. It tasted very much like extremely rich cow's milk. It may be that I have been drinking skim milk for so long that the camel's milk seemed really rich to me. Adnan enjoyed some in his hot tea and Adnan's mom made some custard with it, and it was pretty darn good!
I know people have their own preconceived notions about Arabs living in tents and riding around on camels, and sure, it still exists in areas, but it is just not that common any more. Yes, there are historic older sections with ancient buildings, and there is a small percentage of Bedouins who do still live in tents and perhaps wander the desert. And you can see camel herders, and the men and women here dress traditionally, much the same as they have for centuries.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia is a very modern country with very new and very modern areas that are really quite lovely, and its people are more educated and more civilized than a lot of the rest of the world believes.


  1. I saw many camels, camel herds, and their herders when I lived in Saudi but I never got close enough to one to notice their "bras." This strikes me as kind of funny - a camel bra.

    I also saw some of the Bedouins living in their tents. But what struck me more than this was when I would see the "weekend tent homes" outside the city with the TV antenna up and the big cars parked beside the tents. Most of the ones I saw had generators for power. All the conveniences of home, this weekend retreat.

    Kristie of USA

  2. I love Camels, have not seen a Baby Camel yet though and sure not those nursing bras. I still need to try Camel milk too.
    Have you ever tried Camel meat?
    I can't bring myself to think of eating it, but then again, I ate horse and do it cows.....

    It truly is amazing, what kind of ideas some people have how the people in the Middle East live.
    I posted a picture of a mosque the other day without a text, just title and picture and got the most interesting reactions...

    The tent cities outside in the desert over here are fascinating though.

    The Parties that happen at the Saudi border are more on the scary side though, I guess you know why...

    Thanks for yet another amazing story (and two more things on my to do list ;)

  3. Hi Susie,
    again, sitting here inside our home in Pittsburgh at 17 degree weather and snow falling, I am being transported to another world by your blog. My move just wasn't as exiting as your :) All I worry about right now is the homeless people I see in certain areas of the city, sleeping in doorways piled high with rags. I wish I could help everyone of them, but sadly that won't be possible.
    Love, Sabine

  4. I don't like milk

  5. Just discovered your blog and can't wait to read more; very fascinating! Loved reading about the camels - been to the Safi-Danone dairy farm near Riyadh and seen the cows being milked but not yet seen camels being milked!

  6. Susie, I love your blog! I'm a new Muslim in Canada who has been searching to find out what life is like for Muslim women in Muslim country's. I read your whole blog this afternoon, very well done..

  7. Hi Aya!
    A warm welcome to my blog. So glad to hear that you are enjoying it!

  8. Hello susie,

    This is the first time I read you blog, it is amazing!

    I am a muslim South African and thoroughly enjoy reading the Arabian world through the eyes of an American woman. Alghamdulilah, the world is good.

    May Allah SBW bless your family