I’ve been spending a lot more time around animals lately than I ever thought I would. And if you asked me to guess where I might one day be maximizing my time with deer and antelope, I probably wouldn’t have picked Abu Dhabi. Especially as I lived in a place called Minnesota, where people hunted them for fun and for stew and where I was much closer to the North Pole and Rudolph. I also always thought Bambi needed a forest.
But next time you’re in Abu Dhabi, take a look at the 50 dirham bill. It might not go far in the mall, but it will get you a cup of karak tea, a few Chips Oman sandwiches, and the chance to see look at the Arabian Oryx inscribed on it.
The Arabian Oryx was just about extinct until the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, began a conservation project to save them more than a decade ago. Today, they are getting released into the wild again, but good luck spotting them in the vast, desolate horizon of rolling sand dunes. Today, the best place to see them is at the Al Ain Zoo. Unless you are lucky enough to be my senior class, who has spent the last several months working on a documentary about the vets/zoologists/international cowboys working on the UAE’s Oryx preservation project. (more on that to come).
When you see your first Oryx, he or she will look you straight on—with eyes that are the stuff of poetry. In Arabic, tell a woman has the eyes of an Oryx, and you attesting to her she has captivating beauty.
But beauty is not only what meets the eye: the Oryx have mastered the desert–they travel in herds, they are a symbol that water is near, they can outlast a camel in the heat, and they don’t let it slide if you try and mess with them. They can prance agilely at 90 kilos. And beauty is power, too. Watching what they do to each other’s horns when they fight, you know you don’t want them coming at you with them.
In a desert, these are all beautiful qualities. Something worth being named for. Indeed, Maha is a rather common name throughout the Middle East, and it is the Arabic word for the Oryx. And Maha is not alone. There is also Reem or Reema, another popular name and gazelle. And the cute little one called the Dhabi, which yes, is native of Abu Dhabi. There are lot of stories about how the dhabi helped the island of Abu Dhabi get its name, kind of like there are abundant legends about places in the US named after bears and beavers. And just maybe while English language countries don’t name baby girls after deer, gazelles and antelope, it got me thinking the word “Dear” and “Deer” in English perhaps are not that far off from each other. A rather dear deer thought that failed the test when I discovered ‘dear’ is from something that is extinct: old Norse.