Desert Oasis, Camels, and Bedouin Parties

Bedouins and Camels:
The scenery as we neared Palmyra changed some, resembling more of what I always thought a desert should look like. There were no boulders, just a mix of sand and small stones. Mountains lined us on both sides, and the road mounted steeply just before we reached the city.

Palmyra is an ancient city, a real desert oasis, filled with palm trees in the middle of a wide expanse of sand. Large parts of the ancient city have been uncovered since the 1950’s and the site has been classified as a World Heritage site since 1980. To read more about the cultural heritage of this magnificent site, please visit the “UNESCO sites” section under the Syrian flag.

The first thing we did was to bike around the ruins and walk in the hot sand. I had my first camel ride under the arches – a little scary, especially when he bends down to let you off. We were invited by several of the Bedouin nomads to sleep under the tents in their garden, but we unfortunately didn’t take advantage of their hospitality, as my stomach problems were especially persistent. Several of the Bedouins were very friendly. Ghassan told me of the camel trips that he would take across the desert, sometimes for months at a time. Traveling by camel is no longer what it used to be. A jeep follows the caravan every day with food and water for the people and the camels. They carry satellite telephones, a GPS tracking system, and a laptop computer.
Men here measure their wealth by the number of camels they have. Many of them would brag about how many they or their father owned, and then comment about how rich they were. More than one boasted that it was only his camels that were used on Syrian TV. Camels cost between $3-5000 each.

Before we left, one of the camel drivers took us atop his camel to ride from the ruins to his tent in the oasis for a cup of camel milk. The saddle was made for only one person, apparently, and on the way there, it slid off the back of the camel’s hump, and we went tumbling in a heap to the ground. All I could see was the sky and rear-end of the camel above me – thank God camels don’t fall, too!

We spent the evening in the Bedouin garden with Ghassan, Sahid, and their seven brothers, drinking tea, smoking the water pipe, and trying camel’s milk – which, all the men insisted, would make Stephane very, very strong and me, very, very happy, if he would drink it every day. And he would then be a very bad husband, indeed, if he didn’t make love to me at least once per night!

Party in the Oasis:
The oasis of Palmyra is on the outskirts of the town, right by the ruins. There is water during the winter, but not during the summer, when temperatures reach 45 C (113 F) on average. Even during the summer, the oasis is green with plants and palm trees. From the top of the ruins, you can see a fancy hotel and a sparkling blue swimming pool. Another 5-star was being completed as we were there.

We wandered onto the grounds by chance, as we were looking for a way into the oasis. They were filming a publicity shot at the hotel that night at a party for the architect, construction workers, and journalists. We were invited, along with three other French tourists. We spoke mostly with them, as I was reticent about initiating a conversation with any of the Arab men. In their culture, the men are in control and it is the men who initiate conversations. We sat with about forty workers on pillows on the ground underneath a tent. The men were dressed in typical Arab costume: long white robe and red-checkered headscarf. They love to clap and sing, and would start to sing at a moment’s notice. One would start, then everyone else would join in, singing and clapping away. Then two men got up and started to dance a rhythmic, synchronized dance, twisting their bodies in unbelievable ways, while the other men continued clapping and singing. Steve and Stephane, the two Frenchmen, were pulled to their feet and linked arm in arm, trying desperately to follow the quick movements. I didn’t join in. Nor did Claire or Elise, the two Frenchwomen. There were too many men!

We ate around midnight – a greasy lamb and rice dish served from a platter on the ground. Eight or nine men gathered around each common bowl and dug in with their hands. They brought a couple of spoons for us tourists. Afterwards, the water pipe circulated.

The questions for Stephane and me revolved almost exclusively around the topic of children. People here don’t practice birth control. In fact, the more children, the better. People couldn’t understand how we had been married for three years and had no children. They all thought that I had a sterility problem (or possibly that we had a relationship problem). We would tell them, “Later, after the bicycle trip is finished.” But then they would say, “Now.” “Babies are good.” And, “Arabs like children.” Then they would go on to say how many siblings they had (an average of 15 or 16) or how many children they themselves had. A few minutes would go by, and then the conversation would unfailingly turn back to children.

The evening ended with singing, clapping, and the water pipe. Most of the younger men had broken out of their shell to come to talk to us and also to ask us to sing for them.

Fashion Show at the Amphitheatre:
We managed to get a special invite for an exceptional fashion show and dance musical at the Roman amphitheatre. It was awesome! In the middle of the desert sand, the amphitheatre was lit up in different colors – red, blue, yellow. The audience was dressed almost as fancy as the models, and considering that almost none of the women wore headscarves, I figured that most of them were Christians from Damascus. We sat on the steps of the old theatre and a lizard mistook me for a step, perhaps, and amused itself and our neighbors by crawling up my back onto my shoulders and neck!

Although I haven’t seen many fashion shows, this one was still the nicest I’ve ever seen. The models didn’t parade half-nude down the runway, and unlike Western shows, which seem to try to make pretty models look ugly, this show tried to make pretty models look beautiful. The first fashion wave was Cleopatra-style dresses: long robes, sandals, golden crowns atop dark curls. The second wave was classy ball gowns, made to flow in the strong wind. Then came some more modern clothing styles.

The dance troupe was great. It told the story of a Syrian queen named Julia who went to Rome and became queen of Rome. The dancers wore Egyptian, Nordic, and Roman costumes. The music and show were enthralling, especially in the romantic setting of the old amphitheatre.