Bin Tanaf, a small man with a game leg and a tidy black beard that belies his advancing years, sat on a dune overlooking his camels and reflected on nomadic life. He grew up traveling with his family from one oasis to another in a perpetual search for pasture and water. In summer the camels could go five days without water and in winter many weeks. "With them, we survived," he said, lifting his chin toward his camels.
This relationship, this love between nomad and camel, began thousands of years ago in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. Camels, first and foremost, provided transport across the desert. They were also mounts for raiding rival tribes, to claim or reclaim other camels. During the first half of Bin Tanaf's life his family's camels produced milk for drinking and hair for weaving into blankets and tents. Dung for fueling fires. Urine, even, for a hair wash, to keep lice away.
Since Bedouin life centered on movement, land held no value for them; instead, camels became the measure of a man's wealth. And so, a whole vocabulary of distinctions arose to describe them. Asayel are the noble red camels. Majahim are dark. A female baby camel is a houraa, a new mother a bikr. A male at puberty is a fahl, and a female is jathaa, unless the male has been with her recently and her udder has begun to swell, in which case she is a laqha. No stage in a camel's life, no moment of growth or excitation, escaped attention. The two species, man and camel, suffered and exulted as one.
Then, Bin Tanaf said, something changed. After thousands of years of sameness, life altered in radical ways. The British left in 1971, ceding control of an oil gush that rained down on the Bedouin. The tribal emirs banded together to form the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi as their capital, and money—a great rolling wave of money—flooded the desert.
Bin Tanaf entered the automobile business. Oil-rich residents bought cars at a furious clip, and he shipped them from overseas makers to the emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. His compatriots made their fortunes in construction or shipping or in oil itself. They had grown up not just poor but with no conception of poor, and now the morning sun could hardly climb over their mountains of money. Unable themselves to read or write, they sent their sons to study English in London and French in Paris. They migrated one last time, from camel-hair tents to glass skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.