“When the Bedouin will stop caring for camels, the world will come to an end”. This may well sound like a wise Arabian proverb, but it is just what Salem Al Mansouri said, a Bedouin himself, sitting with his camels at Al Dhafra Festival.
“I’ve been coming here ever since the festival started in 2008. I won first place three times! Winning a camel beauty competition is about prestige, about status; people will come to congratulate you, they will offer you great deals for your camels and value you word as a camel breeder. It is also about money; when your camel is announced as the winner, you instantly see its value doubling, even tripling to anything between AED 1 million to AED 3 million, sometimes even more.”
In the remote Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi emirate, at the foothills of the mighty Empty Quarter desert, some 20,000 people and their 1,500 camels are camping all over the gentle sand dunes, beyond the reach of the eyesight, across the grounds of Al Dhafra Festival, unfolding on dozens of square kilometres.
The place is quite a sight – traditional souks selling dates, perfumes, camel covers, Arabic dhala coffee pots, Bedouin sitting tents, wood for evening fires and fruit baskets. There are 4x4s, incense burning scent, falcons, salukis and camels, camels, camels everywhere!
The festival is a glimpse into old Arabia, a world nearly sunken under the shifted sands that gave way to the modern urban life. Still, out here, only the four-wheel drives, moving like giant ants on and off the roads, remind of the present times.
Put together by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra Festival started in 2008, first as a camel beauty competition. Year after year, more Emirati customs, heritage and traditions were added to the programme. By now, it has grown into a much bigger affair, a keeper of Gulf Arab lifestyle, a celebration of desert traditions, said to be the largest Bedouin gathering on the planet!
A couple of hours drive from Abu Dhabi city, the festival opens the path into a desert wonderland. As soon as you turn off the Liwa highway and enter the special festival road that cuts through the desert, a forest of Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols surround you, driving in all directions with only one rule applying: camels have priority!
On one side, a long line of trucks is selling green fodder for camels and large bunches of firewood. The 10 kilometers long tarmac road eventually leads to the traditional market, where 160 artisans, crafts makers and entrepreneurs, all Emirati women from across the UAE are selling all manner of handicrafts and products.
“This is like a holder, which you can hang on a wall,” says Fatima Al Mazrouei, describing the red, black and orange rectangular cloth, which she made. “It has three pockets, where you can keep all kinds of small items.”
Her starting price is AED 1,200, but after negotiations you can bring it down to about AED 900
Like her fellow traders, Fatima arrives every morning at Al Dhafra Festival with bags of goods that top up the supplies of her shop. The 48,000 square meters market area includes an outdoor display of Bedouin traditions and a children playground area. In the main square there are nightly folk shows and an exhibition by the Emirates Heritage Club, dedicated to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, displaying rarely seen objects such as Sheikh Zayed’s personal film camera. It is an old Swiss model and Sheikh Zayed loved using it to film rainy days in the desert or camel, hors and falcon racings.
The 100 shops, built to resemble old Emirati mud brick and palm frond houses, are filled with perfumes and incense, spices, traditional dresses and accessories, palm frond baskets and camel or goat wool rugs.
Right across the road is the arena for the camel mazayna (beauty) competitions. This year there are 82 of them! During each one of them, camel owners bring out their camels, walk them in front of the judges who, after a long process of medical check ups and deliberation, choose the best group of camels or the best individual one, depending on the category.
“A winning camel must have big eyes framed with lush lashes, nose and lip that drop downward, long neck and legs, big feet and a high hump,” explains Mohammed bin Adhed Al Muhairi, Director of the Camel Mazayna at Al Dhafra Festival.
“This year, we introduced even tougher measures on participants who are trying to cheat. Every once in a while, we get a camel owner who tries to enter in the competition a camel that has enhanced looks. They spray the hump to change the camel’s hair colour or even subject the camel to botox to plump its cheeks or lips. Our judges are experts and able to spot such changes, but we also have various medical check ups for the camels, detecting any drugs given to the camels, so there is no possibility of cheating”.
As in previous years, only Asayel, the golden brown camels that originate in Oman, and Majahim, the black camels of Saudi Arabia, are allowed to take part in the camel mazayna competitions.
The distance between the spectator seats and the judging arena is quite big, and some people bring along binoculars to be able to scrutinise potential beauties.
“These are usually the people looking to form the herd for the Bayraq competition; you know, the group of 50 best looking camels, which is always the highlight of all camel mazayna,” says Sultan Al Obaidly, an Emirati camel owner.
“They complete the herd with camels they buy here, at the festival. If they win the Bayraq, they get AED one million in cash, and also huge offers for their camels,” he adds.
“A few years ago, one Bayraq winner covered his best camel in gold and gave it as a gift to a sheikh. This type of gesture may sound extravagant, but it wins him lots of favours with the sheikh over the years”.
As the time for announcing a beauty competition winner narrows, the crowds get increasingly impatient. There are outburst of improvised verses, chanting and songs, praising the beauty of own camels. Eventually, the winning names are announced and waves of ghutra (Arab men’s head scarf) are thrown high up in the air, while screams of joy take over the arena. Family and friends of the winner join in the singing and dancing until the pens are opened and the camels are free to go.
Before returning to their camp, competition winners often parade their beauties on the nearby Million Street, so potential buyers would know who to look out for if they want a top purebred camel.
The Million Street is, without a doubt, the most popular and crowded area of the festival. Here is where the camel trading takes place and the sales would put even Sotheby’s into a “wow” mode. It was here that the world record for the most expensive camel ever sold took place: AED 10,000,000. It was purchased by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, in 2008.
Al Dhafra Festival will continue until December 28th.