Thursday, January 8, 2009
Almost instantly after mentioning to our hosts that we would like to see the desert, we were off on another adventure. The drive away from the capital is a journey itself with more roundabout driving circles than the state of South Carolina has in its total. After several phone calls and a few U-turns later we were greeted by a prized pigeon breeding friend of Ali’s; he was taking his newest birds as a present to the Grand Shaikh and extended an invitation for us to come along on the trip.
We stopped at the Tree of Life, which as Ali pointed out is ‘the tree of no life’ since being covered in graffiti. But in spite of its hasty decoration, the sprawling African tree, with no water source, has been a thriving pilgrimage for decades. With good luck now in tow and a reminder of something higher, we set forth across the dunes to meet a member of the royal family.
We were warned about the weather difference between the city and the desert, but even the cold weather natives were stunned. More than once during the twenty minute Jeep ride, the thought crossed our minds that we might not ever be returning to the city—camping tents, wild camels, and garbage dumps began springing up. We must have sat very quietly in the back seat because Ali joked about the very thing we were ashamed to admit, “Don’t worry, we won’t kill you here.”
As we pulled into this elaborate six tented area (falconers camp for four months at a time) we were greeted by a swarm of happy faces. In addition to being an avid pigeon collector, the Grand Shaikh ironically was also a master falconer, and we were just in time to watch a demonstration. These magnificent birds can cost from two thousand to two million dollars, and always ride first class on airplanes.
Without getting into too much detail on the rather bloody event, the falcon is released into the wind and can spot his prey from a mile away. It then flies very low to the ground, dropping with speed onto the pigeon and then elevates again, circling around for another strike.
After we watched the training of three different birds, held them properly with and without their hoods, the sun began to set and we were invited into the welcoming tent for hot tea and dessert. I still have not learned the name of one of the dishes we tried, but according to Ali’s facial expression, it is not one that will be imported into the city. It was a spiced apple gelatin of sorts with fried egg on top, and having not had lunch that day, the Americans drove heartily into the substance. Ali stated later that he would not serve that ‘yuck’ in any of his restaurants, but thanked us for being polite-- Little did he know that we were all so hungry the raw pigeon meat looked good!