It screamed, “Camel No. 1! Camel No. 1!”
There were a number of young men in kanduras (long tunics) running toward my car as they pointed their index fingers in the air as I arrived at the Al Dhafra Festival just before the gates opened. Two camel-riding men could be seen in the distance, each pulling a camel on a leash. The winner’s blanket was draped over one of the camels.
A large convoy of honking pickup trucks was following the men as they made their way across the sand dunes. People climbed into the backs of their cars and leaned their heads out the windows, waving and cheering as they recorded the spectacle on their smartphones.
I jumped on the back of the nearest pickup truck and left my little rental car behind because I couldn’t get far in the sand. I felt compelled to attend this spur of the moment celebration.
This year’s Al Dhafra Festival, a celebration of Bedouin culture, will be held at the edge of the world’s largest sand desert, the Rub al Khali, near the Emirati city of Madinat Zayed, about two hours southwest of Abu Dhabi.
Saluki races, poetry readings, and exhibits on falconry and traditional artisanship are some of the event’s highlights. The Bedouin prize the dogs’ speed and eyesight. Everything from dates straight from the tree to camel milk is available.
The camel beauty contests, on the other hand, are the festival’s centrepiece.
For the duration of the week-long festival, Al Dhafra is the centre of the camel universe. There were more than 24,000 camels from all over the Middle East competing for a total prize money of 60 million Emirati dirhams in 2019, the year I attended. Also, huge sums of money are exchanged for the sale of particularly stunning camels.
At the time, two camel breeders from the same family were arguing over which of their animals was more beautiful, and they needed the help of a few impartial judges.
A multimillion-dollar industry has grown out of camel beauty contests, with heritage festivals sponsored by states all over the country.
To celebrate Bedouin culture, generate tourism, and preserve the purity of certain camel breeds are the goals of the Al Dhafra Festival, which was formally launched by the government in 2008.
In the last fifty years, Bedouin society has all but disappeared. Nomadic herding patterns have been stifled by modern borders, and other traditional cultural practises have been upended by economic and technological change.
Al Dhafra is one of the few ways that urbanised Bedouins can meaningfully preserve their traditions.
It doesn’t matter if a camel is owned by a sheikh or a tribesman; there are competitions for camels of all kinds. The standards, on the other hand, have not changed.
Camels have long legs, a long neck, a nice shapely hump on their lower back, pert ears, expressive eyes, long droopy lips, and, of course, a shiny coat and an elegant posture. The ideal camel has all of these characteristics.
As a result, a whole industry has sprung up around beauty pageants to cater to the needs of aspiring supermodels. There are camel tailors, for example, who set up a camp in Al Dhafra and sell colourful reins, shimmering camel blankets tied with tinsel tails, and even glimmering necklaces made of plastic beads and stringed coin.
There are food trucks, tents, and caravans set up along Million Street, where the camel stars show off.
Camel tack and shampoo aren’t the only things you can buy at the market. There are also a variety of winter accessories, such as colourful blankets, coffee sets, stoves, rugs, and hunting gear, as well as foldable chairs and water bottles. Restaurants that serve kebabs, cakes, and sweet karak chai are advertised with bright lights. Even the camels and the celebrants’ clothing can be cleaned by a professional laundry service.
During the festival, Emirati women play only a minor role. Women and children are traditionally excluded from camel competitions, so they spend most of their time in their tents or at a nearby market.
For the duration of my three-day visit, I was able to walk around freely, participate in camel beauty contests, and join owners of the winners at their celebrations because I was a foreigner.
At sunset, the sky turned a dusky purple and canopies with thousands of lights appeared among the sand dunes. Bedouins from all over the region had gathered inside to pay respects to their culture and traditions. There were elaborately decorated tents for each of the three tribes.
When the Almuharrami family invited me to join them in their illuminated tent to celebrate one of their camels’ victories, I followed Waheela, a beauty queen.
“She has just been crowned the most beautiful young camel in the Middle East,” said Muneef, her 12-year-old owner, with a beaming smile on her face.
At that point, the music started up again, and the men began to yowlah. Men performed a battle scene and chanted poetry as part of the traditional stick dance. Even though the sun had set when I left, the revelry had continued until the wee hours of the morning.
Originally from Germany, Kiki Streitberger now works out of London and Berlin as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. On Instagram, you can keep up with her work.