A camp where time stands still

ABU DHABI – Amna Al Rumaithi is sitting by the edge of the tent, learning how to make laban. She is merely 11 years old but every week she travels from Samha, a village on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border, to the Samaliya summer camp.


Silvia Radan

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Published: Sun 15 Jul 2007, 10:02 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:09 AM

Samaliya is an island just off Al Raha on the outskirts of the capital. For 14 years now, the Emirates Heritage Club (EHC), run by Deputy Prime Minister Shaikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan has been organising summer camps here for Emirati children, usually starting from June till the end of August.

Apart from giving the schoolboys and girls a place to spend their summer holiday, EHC is also encouraging them to learn about the UAE heritage. Most of the activities on the island are related to local customs and traditions, such as horse and camel riding, sailing, falconry, range shooting, astronomy, but there is also an increasing emphasis on environment protection, as well as modern sports like fencing. Every year, thousands of children come to Samaliya, which is opened most of the week for boys. Thursdays are reserved for girls.

“My favourite activity here is to ride the horse,” says Amna while shaking the laban. She doesn’t have a horse at home, so this is one of her few chances of horse riding. The young and rather shy Emirati girl points out that she does enjoy the whole experience of the summer camp and that is why she comes here every Thursday. As she grows tired of shaking the laban, Sharina Hadem Al Rumaithi takes over. Sharina, a lady also from Samha, is here to teach the young girls the ways of the past. She explains that cow, camel or even sheep milk is poured in a sheepskin, which is hanged on one of the poles that supports the tent. The sheepskin is then shaken for anything between 45 minutes and two hours.

“The faster you shake it, the quicker the laban is done,” explains Sharina. When it is ready, you take out the butter from the mouth of the sheepskin, then drink the laban.

As she keeps shaking the sheepskin, Sharina recalls the way things used to be when she grew up and the girls at the summer camp gather around her to listen to stories of a different world.

“I really miss the old days. Life was tough, but more beautiful,” she says nostalgically, explaining that everything was much fresher and more peaceful then.

“I used to get up early, milk the camels, prepare the laban, help with the cooking, sew clothes for my family. This generation, though, is not like that. Girls these days mostly like to meet their friends and go to the mall,” comments Sharina.

According to her, even the camels used to give more and better milk in the olden days, simply because they lived in unpolluted desert.

In another tent on the summer camp, eight-year-old Shama Ali learns the tricks of becoming a beautiful bride. There are four small jars with various natural substances in front of her and, while Shama’s hands are decorated with henna, her tutor explains what all these containers are for.

‘Nir’ is a kind of perfume, which is applied behind the ears. ‘Wars’ acts as a skin whitener and has to be spread on the face repeatedly for three days before the wedding. A mixture of ‘halab’ and ‘zafaran’ is meant to make the hair soft, while ‘zafaran’ alone acts as a facial cleanser and should be applied on the day before the wedding. Finally, the bride is covered in jewellery, wearing a golden ‘atasa’ on the head and a ‘martasha’, a heavy gold necklace.

“When I grow up, I definitely want to have a traditional wedding,” declares Shama, much impressed with her treatment.

Ahlan Al Hosani, an art and crafts tutor, explains that less and less people choose traditional wedding these days. “Most of the time, local couples prefer a mixed wedding, one day observing the Emirati customs, another following the western ones,” mentions Ahlan.

She, like most of the girls on Samaliya, comes from Samha. “We have a ladies’ club there, which is part of EHC,” explains Hamda Al Rumaithi, the club’s representative.

According to her, around 100 girls come to the island every Thursday and they also have visitors from other organisations and other emirates. “Some of the activities vary from week to week,” says Hamda.

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