Meet the beauty queens of Al Dhafra

«Camel n ° 1! Camel n ° 1! “ I had just arrived at the Al Dhafra festival, and young boys in kanduras, or long tunics, were running t...


«Camel n ° 1! Camel n ° 1! “

I had just arrived at the Al Dhafra festival, and young boys in kanduras, or long tunics, were running towards my car, screaming while pointing their index fingers in the air. In the distance, two men were riding camels, each pulling another animal on a leash. One of the camels was draped in a victorian blanket with golden tassels.

Behind the men, advancing slowly through the sand dunes, was a large convoy of honking vans. Men and boys stood in the beds of the vehicles and leaned out of all the windows, waving and cheering, many of them filming the scene on their phones.

Without a second thought, I left my little rental car behind – I wouldn’t have gone far in the deep sand, anyway – and jumped in the back of the nearest pickup. I wanted to be part of this impromptu celebration.

The annual Al Dhafra festival celebrates Bedouin traditions and takes place at the edge of Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, considered the largest sand desert in the world, near the Emirati town of Madinat Zayed, two hours from road southwest of Abu Dhabi.

Highlights of the rally include the Saluki races (dogs are prized by Bedouins due to their speed and sight), poetry readings, and exhibits on falconry and traditional crafts. From fresh dates to camel milk, there is also a range of dishes and drinks.

At the heart of the festival, however, are the camel beauty pageants.

During this week-long event, Al Dhafra is the epicenter of the camel universe. In 2019, the year I attended, over 24,000 camels from across the Middle East competed for 60 million Emirati dirhams in prizes, the equivalent of over $ 16 million. Large sums of money also change hands as particularly beautiful camels are sold.

Some participants trace the origins of beauty pageants to a family dispute in 1993, when two camel herders had to call in independent judges to determine which animals were the prettiest.

Since then, camel-back beauty pageants have grown into a multi-million dollar industry, with state-sponsored heritage festivals held across the country.

The objectives of the Al Dhafra Festival, which was officially launched by the government in 2008, are to celebrate Bedouin culture, generate tourism and preserve the purity of certain breeds of camels.

Bedouin society has all but gone over the past fifty years. Modern borders have stifled nomadic herding models, and the encroachment of economic and technological change has disrupted other traditional cultural practices.

For urbanized Bedouin, festivals like Al Dhafra are one of the few ways to meaningfully maintain their traditions.

Camel beauty pageants are divided into different categories, depending on race, age, gender, and whether a camel is owned by a sheikh or a member of a tribe. However, the criteria remain the same.

The ideal camel has long straight legs, a long neck, a shapely hump (just in the right place on the lower back), erect ears, expressive eyes framed by upward curling lashes, long drooping lips and, well. secure, sleek coat and sleek posture.

No model is complete without jewelry, and a whole industry has grown around beauty pageants to provide the right accessories. Camel tailors, for example, have set up their camp in Al Dhafra, where they sell colorful reins, shiny camel blankets laced with tassel tassels, and even sparkly necklaces made from plastic beads and string coins. .

Million Street, the road on which superstar camels strut, turns into an open-air market of tents, caravans and food trucks.

The market is not just a place to buy camel saddlery and shampoo. Colorful winter blankets, coffee sets, stoves, rugs, hunting gear, folding chairs, skins and an assortment of clothing are also on offer. Bright lights herald restaurants that serve kebabs, cakes and sweet karak chai. There are even laundry services to keep the celebrants – both the people and the camels – looking spotless.

Emirati women play a limited role during the festival. Usually excluded from participating in camel competitions, women and children spend much of their time around their family tents or in a nearby market.

As a foreigner, however, I appeared to be exempt from gender restrictions, and during my three-day visit, I was able to roam freely, attend camel beauty pageants, and join the owners at the celebrations of the camels. winners.

As the sun set and the sky turned a dark purple, canopies adorned with thousands of lights began to sparkle among the dunes. Inside were members of the Bedouin tribes, usually scattered throughout the region, who had come here to honor their traditions. Each tribe had set up a lavishly decorated tent.

Invited to celebrate one of their camels’ victories, I joined the men of the Almuharrami family in their illuminated tent, following 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, beaming with pride.

And then the music started, and the men raised their bamboo canes to perform the yowla. During the traditional stick dance, the men sang poetry and simulated a battle scene. By the time I left the party, the sky had turned pitch black, and the festivities lasted until the end of the night.

Kiki Streitberger is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in London and Germany. You can follow his work on Instagram.



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