Following in the founding father’s footsteps

A group of women have paid tribute to the strength and endurance of Emirati familes of the past by walking 140km through the dunes from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi.

Nima Abdi is greeted by a family member at the Zayed Centre after finishing the Heritage walk. Satish Kumar / The National
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ABU DHABI // A group of women have paid tribute to the strength and endurance of Emirati families of the past by walking 140 kilometres through the dunes from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi.

The 30 women left Al Bada Resort in Al Ain a week ago, sleeping at makeshift Bedouin camps along the way, before arriving tired but exhilarated at Zayed Centre in Al Bateen yesterday.

Emirati Hessa Al Jaberi, 28, admitted to having very sore feet after walking an average of 25km a day.

“But these wounds are my gifts, something to remember the walk by,” the environmental analyst said. “Doing the walk made me feel grateful for small things – the sand, the wind and the clouds, when they gave us a little shade.

“I felt a connection to the land I was walking on. It made me wonder how my grandparents drank, what they ate and whether it was enough for them. I feel so grateful for what I have now.”

In decades past, Emirati families often made the trek from Al Ain Oasis to the small fishing village of Abu Dhabi.

Like the 30 women they experienced searing heat and aching limbs, but also a deep camaraderie reinforced by storytelling over shared meals.

It was the first time Emirati Amera Al Beraki, 21, had slept away from her family. “We were all mixing together, Emiratis and expats, and I loved it.”

“I suffered a little, but didn’t feel tired until the end. The desert was so beautiful,” Ms Al Beraki said.

Emirati media student Nouwal Al Marzooqi, 22, said: “Since we’re in a multicultural country, we need to know people from other countries.

“We meet them at work or university but we don’t talk to them. Every time I walked with a different woman, I learnt something new.

“I also wanted to do something to make my parents proud of me. When I told them I wanted to study media, they said ‘why don’t you study to be a doctor or an engineer?’ I want them to see that I can do impossible things.”

The ladies were led by American lifestyle coach Jody Ballard, 58.

“We were a community of non-judgmental women just having a chat,” says Ms Ballard. “As the ladies walked in the vast openness of the dunes, it gave them time to think, ‘what’s important in my life? How is my career shifting?’

“For me, I hadn’t realised I was still missing my father. I cried three times on this trip. Things roam around your brain.

“You need someone to bounce them off and that time to figure them out.”

Carmen Rodriguez Ware, an American, said it was her knees that ached the most by the end.

“There were times when I felt totally physically emptied, like I’d been turned inside out,” Ms Ware said. “The soul of the desert was so apparent – this vast, shifting, alive yet subtle place.

“We drive by the desert all the time but we don’t go into it.”

Ms Ballard wanted to make the experience as authentic as possible. She had heard tales of how in the past, saluki dogs would go out in front of the women to clear the way of dangers such as snakes.

The ladies had their Saluki — a rescue dog belonging to walker Anne Lange, 43, from Belgium.

Emirati pearl diver Maj Ali Al Suweidi arrived at the ladies’ camp one evening to show them some true Bedouin hospitality.

Maj Al Suweidi brought coffee and his falcon, and shared his tales of bygone days.

He explained how after pearl divers had spent three months at sea, their women would walk to Abu Dhabi to join them. One of those ladies was his 95-year-old mother.

Zayed University student Alanood Al Marzooqi, 21, said: “Major Ali told us how past generations knew what the weather would be like from the stars.

“I was shocked because it made me realise that I am Emirati but I don’t know about my culture, so what’s the point of it? In UAE families, the older generation must tell the kids how they used to live.”

Ms Al Marzooqi acknowledged that as well as the highs, there were also moments when she considered quitting.

“I hadn’t had much time to practise, so it was hard. But these really strong women make me want to push myself harder. I’m really proud that I did it.”

Maryam Al Ansari, 27 from Ajman, organises hiking trips in Europe for Emiratis.

“I like to travel abroad because then I can walk from place to place,” Ms Al Ansari said. “But here, it’s hot and things are too far away. In Ajman I can’t walk to the nearest shopping mall from my house.

“The walking culture isn’t here yet so before this I never thought I could go hiking in the desert.

“Because we were the first batch, we had to have a lot of courage to convince our families to let us do this walk. I think when we show them the photos, a lot of Emirati girls will be interested in joining us next year.”

The women’s heritage walk was organised by Strategic Wellness Systems and Escape Events under the patronage of Sheikha Shaikha bint Mohammed Al Nahyan.