Competition, poetry fill the air at Al Dhafra Festival

Asayel camels

MADINAT ZAYED - By day, camels’ beauty is appreciated with big cash awards and by night they inspire songs and poems that fill the cold, dry winter desert air. A Bedouin's love for his camel has never been more revealing than at Al Dhafra Festival and this year thousands - 1,500 to be more precise - of Arab men are travelling from across the Gulf, with their most beautiful camels, to set up their camps in the desert outskirts of Madinat Zayed, in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.
Organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi, Al Dhafra Festival has grown from a mainly camel beauty show 10 years ago to a celebration of Emirati - and Gulf Bedouin - traditions, with saluki, falcon and sheep beauty competitions, Arabian horse race, best handicrafts, dates and laban (sour milk) contests being among the 16 different heritage activities this year. Yet, the camel mazaynah (beauty) competitions remain at the heart of the Festival.
"We have 84 camel competitions in different categories, 18 for Emiratis, and the rest are opened to anyone, regardless of nationality, as long as they enter with purebred Asayel or Mujahim camels they own. Asayel is the golden-red hair camel that originates from Oman, while Mujahim is the black camel that comes from Saudi Arabia. Only in the camel milk competition we allowed mixed breeds," said Obaid Khalfan Al Mazrouei, Director of Heritage Competitions at the Committee.
"To enter the camel competition, people have to register here, at Al Dhafra Festival, at least a day in advance. This year, the judging criteria have slightly changed, to focus even more on the quality of the entries, but we still look at the camel's proportions, head, neck, hair and general appearance," said Mohammed bin Adhed Al Muhairi, Director of the Camel Mazaynah at Al Dhafra Festival.
The top 10 of each of the 84 camel competitions are awarded, first places receiving a brand new Nissan 4x4, while the others receive cash prizes from AED80,000 (second place) to AED10,000 (10th place).
Winning camels become instantly more valuable, their price jumping into the six-digit numbers. One of the highest offers - which was accepted – was made for a winning camel in the previous years of Al Dhafra Festival was AED1.5 millions!
"If you want your camel to win a beauty competition, you must know how to feed it. We give it fresh milk and honey for several weeks before taking it to the Festival, and we also add the best quality hay and grass to the camel's diet to improve its hair, body and general look. Of course, it doesn't come cheap; you may end up spending over AED 5000 a month on one camel," said Mubarak Al Mazrouei, a participant from Madinat Zayed area.
"We really care about the camel a lot. In the eyes of the Bedouin, the camel is always beautiful, and he will never tire of showing his affection for it. When I was a young boy, I used to watch my father, who would go on for hours reciting poetry about the camel, which he learnt from his father or composed himself," he added.
The desert animal, praised in the Holy Koran, is a fundamental part of the Bedouin poetry and has always been at the heart of the Arab way of life.
For centuries, camels were the Arabs' most prised possession, often the sole source of survival, giving them food, transport, wool for blankets and tents besides an income. Camels are no longer needed for survival, but the bond has remained just as strong. And so has the poetry.
The long minutes - sometimes going into over an hour - of waiting before winners of each camel competition are announced, are filled with Nabati - Bedouin - poetry about camels. And then, when the winning names are called out, the verses turn into screams of joy, song and even dance, while the beautiful camel is covered with garlands and expensive saffron. Well into the night, in the tents that stretch for miles across the Festival grounds, verses keep whispering a Bedouin’s love for his camel.