Sorry for the delay on this blog post. I really did not intend for my follow up to the “Camel Beauty Teaser” to be so long overdue. It’s another two parter. The weekend before last, we ventured out on the Middle Eastern trip of my dreams: the Al Dhafra Camel Beauty Pageant. Why this event has fascinated me for the past several months is unknown to me. I have never been especially excited about camels before coming to Abu Dhabi in August, but I saw a few photos of this event and was enchanted from the start before I knew anything about it. It was not what I expected at all.
Here’s what I expected: Some odd amalgam of Toddlers & Tiaras meets Lady Gaga with camels instead of people. Why did I expect this? I am not sure exactly why. Perhaps because of this crazy camel I found a photo of online? And then, of course, this is Dubai where everything is a little over the top. In the UAE, bling is king, and camels should be no exception, right? The Al Dhafra Camel Festival is not over the top in the slightest though, unless you find travelling back 100 years in time and tradition odd. This Camel festival was like time travel, and it was done very purposefully.
Let me give you a quick back-story to this event as told to me by our very helpful, young guide, Said. The United Arab Emirates is a very young country—only 42 years old! It has grown exponentially over the past 42 years. The U.A.E. is truly the crossroads of civilizations and has more daily international air/passenger traffic than any other city in the world. This has serious implications both bad and good for the future of the country. The founders of the country have been very concerned that, with this crazy growth, tradition will go by the wayside, so they fashioned events like this to preserve the culture and traditions of this new country and its ancient bedouin civilization.
The day got off to a very rough start. We did not have a map and neither of our so-called “smartphones” have data plans in this country rendering them regular old dumb phones (but that’s another blog altogether). We stopped for gas and directions. I thought perhaps the gas station might have Wifi, ha! Not. A kindly Indian man with very limited English skills did his best to guide us towards the camel festival. He bobbed his head, twirled his hands, drew us a map to nowhere and said a few things that were almost recognizable. We thanked him graciously for his effort and looked at each other knowingly: we were going to have to wing it! Fortunately, we had both looked at maps and had a very general idea of where we were going, a town called Madinet Zayed. The Garmin could get us to within the vicinity of the place, but, at some point, we knew that the Garmin would be of no use to us whatsoever–as usual. The dusty road to Madinat Zayed reminded me of those near old military towns in either the Californian or Nevadan deserts in the USA–you know the kind that look a bit decimated by nuclear testing in the 50s–something like that: dusty, dry, barren and uninhabited.
An hour and a half or so and smack dab in between the the Saudia Arabian and Omani borders, we landed in Madinet Zayed, the home of the Camel Beauty Pageant. It was not as a small town as it had looked on the map. It even had a Starbucks, but we still had to drive about 20 minutes south of the city to get to the Festival. Luckily for us, the road there was very well marked. We turned off the highway onto another dry, winding desert road and out of nowhere appeared hundreds of white, Bedouin tents, camels and trucks full of camels. It was as though we had gone back in time, or more realistically, landed on the Hollywood set of some Mad Max/Lawrence of Arabia remake, but we hadn’t. We were at the Camel Festival as planned.
The wind was blowing up a sand storm that day, so we were treated to a true desert experience. We trundled over a dune to find miles and miles of desert, camels and tents. The camel festival’s encampment was vaster than I could have ever imagined it might be. We had no idea where to go. There were signs that pointed here and there to the Saluki Dog races, Camel races, Traditional Souk, Medical Clinic, Camel Auction tent, Slaughterhouse (oh my!) and then finally there it was: the sign to the Camel Beauty Pageant pointing to another large tent at the end of the a dusty, desert road. There were lots of trucks parked there. We were in a small, rental Toyota Camry, which I am certain did not appreciate the off-roading experience.
The poor Camry lumbered up to where all the trucks were parked. We parked. We half got out of the car when we noticed that, though there were lots of people here for the pageant, they were noticeably of one gender and one gender only. There were many middle eastern men everywhere swathed in different patterns of traditional head gear, the Keffiyeh. They were clad far more suitably for the sandy desert wind than we, milling around the outskirts of the Camel beauty pageant. Not a woman in sight…Anywhere…Not one! Rob, my other half, decided to leave us (1 granny, me and 2 girls) waiting by the car to be certain that women were even allowed in. I think I would have been devastated if it had been a “Men Only” event and, sadly, I would not have been shocked if it were. After all, you just never know: Camel pageantry might be an event in which only men partake?!
We hung back near the car, as we watched Rob approach a very young, smiling Middle Eastern man who was greeting the pageant goers. They smiled, laughed and chatted for what seemed like an eternity, before Rob signaled for us to come with a great big smile. We ran to the entrance and smiled back at the young greeter who seemed genuinely delighted to see us, westerners, there. He told us just how welcome we were. He seemed very surprised that we might think we were not welcome there even for a second. It turned out he was a university student in Oregon (very near to where we had just left in Washington State). We shared stories about our adopted part of the USA for a few moments before another greeter came along offering us a box of the finest dates courtesy of Sheik Khalifa Bin Zayed Nayhan Foundation. The Foundation is the pet project of the Sheik of Abu Dhabi, by the same name, to carry out his directives and retain the traditions and culture of the UAE. The dates were delicious. He joked with my younger daughter that she could ride the camels, but he jokingly told her to watch the black camels, that they had bad temperments. The greeter directed us toward the door on the left toward to VIP section. We smiled at each other and at our newfound VIP status. We walked to the left having no idea what we might find behind the curtained door to the left in the VIP section of the mythical Camel Beauty pageant.
So, let me reiterate here that I was expecting a stage and bedazzled camels walking across the stage to thumping club music. I half expected them to be wearing make up and clothes, but the smarter half of me knew this was probably not the case.
What was there was not what I expected in the slightest.
Off into the near distance was a dusty field more akin to a 4-H fair than the razzle-dazzle beauty pageant that I was expecting. To the right in the stands, were somber looking Arab men seated in very formal brocade and gold chaise lounges. They sipped traditional Arabic cardamom coffee from very small cups one after the other and chatting familiarly with their neighbors all eyes on their camels. Again, not a woman in sight! Another young Middle Eastern man handed us a pageant prospectus that offered westerners details about the Festival: a calendar of events, information on camels and the criteria by which the camels are judged, and then he ushered us to our elegant pageant-viewing seats. The seats were velvet with golden thread. The stands were opulent to say the least, in spite of the 4-H fair ambiance. Another young man swiftly brought us our Arabic coffee and then stood at the ready to fill our small cups as soon as we took the last sip. The spiced coffee delighted the senses! It complemented the dusty air, velvety seats, impeccable service and the scenery before us, not to mention the bevy of camels waiting to be judged.
Soon, another young Middle Eastern man dressed in the traditional Emirati garb introduced himself to us as “Said.” In near perfect English, he went on to offer himself to us as a guide for the festivities. It turned out that Said was also a student at the University of Oregon studying Mechanical Engineering. He was home on winter break and volunteering his service to the Camel Festival. He loved America, but was excited to eventually come back to his home country and its traditions for good. He also knew a lot about camels, which made him of great interest to me. He let us know that he was at our service for the day if we so chose. Knowing nothing about camels, we gladly accepted his kind service. My daughter asked him if the camels were friendly. He laughed and said that camels were very affectionate. “Even the black ones?” My youngest asked with incredulity. He laughed a little harder and replied, “yes, the black ones are the most beautiful and the most friendly. Would you like to ride a camel?” He asked Lucie. Her face beamed with categorical excitement, “Yes! Can we?” “Yes,” he said. “Follow me. I will take you there,” Said ushered us in the direction of the camels and the main pageant “stage.” What followed was pure dromedarian fun!! Part ٢ coming Thursday.