In the eyes of Mohammed Al Dhaheri, Jamilah was already a winner. The five-year-old black camel was gracefully chewing some fresh grass, carrying little about the attention given to her by a group of tourists with photo cameras.
“Jamilah was born in my farm, near Riyadh, where I have about 80 camels, black like her. When it happened, my young daughter, who was about three years old at that time, came out and hugged her and immediately called her Jamilah. And that’s how she got her name,” explained Mohammed.
He was one of the 1,300 Bedouins who came to Al Dhafra Festival last week in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. In the gentle golden sands beyond Madinat Zayed, leading towards the mighty Empty Quarters of Liwa, 20,000 camels were camping with their owners and keepers. Many of these camels entered the various categories of the beauty competition that offered cash and four-wheel car awards worth nearly Dh35 million. Others were sold in auctions for various amounts, some exceeding the price of a bunch of Rolls Royce! Hafeez Al Mazrouei’s camel for example, sold for Dh7.5 million. Obeid Breiman Al Ameri would have toppled that, as he was offered Dh9 million for his two-year old female camel, but he refused to sell. And so did Hamdan Al Falahi, who was not impressed with the Dh16 million offered for two of his camels.
“The highest record price that was paid for a naqah [female camel] was last year at the fourth Al Dhafra Mazayana festival, when Shaikh Sultan bin Hamdan bought Karam Al Menhali’s naqah for Dh15 million,” said Salem Al Mazrouei, director of the festival.
Business aside, Al Dhafra was, above all, an extraordinary display in Bedouin traditions and hospitality. Right at the entrance two trucks were selling pretty looking packs of dates. A paved road lined with small shops selling camel accessories, household objects, dates, clothes and even bags, eventually ended in a small roundabout with two options: the right turn, going up a small hill, was for the traditional souk, while the left turn was leading to the famous Million Street.
“Come, come! This very nice for you,” called Fatma, who was selling beautiful — and colourful — Emirati dresses.
“I make them. I learnt from my mother, but now she is old and her eyesight is not very good for sowing.”
Like Fatma, many of the souk kiosks belonged to Emirati ladies from Liwa and Madinat Zayed, selling their own home-made objects. There were, of course, camel blankets and decorative lace, dresses, jewellery and Arabic perfume. Sweets, dates and spices seemed most popular with foreign visitors, but small objects too, typically Emirati, were favoured by souvenir hunters.
“I bought this beautiful golden burka, you know, the face masque for ladies. It is so incredibly light! When I saw it on the faces of the ladies here, I thought it is made of metal and a lot heavier. I didn’t realise it’s just paper,” said Christine Gordon, an Australian tourist who came to spend Christmas with her friends in Abu Dhabi.
“I’m sure my mom and my friends in Sydney would be very intrigued by it. They have never seen anything like it!”
As far as the eyes could see tents and camels were dotted across the desert, split by the “main” paved road that went on for several kilometres before ending at the doorsteps of Tilal Liwa Hotel. Trucks packed with wood for campfires, bundles of grass for camels and water cisterns were dotted all over the festival area.
The Million Street, named so because this is where all these million dirhams camels are sold, was pretty much the heart of the festival. Here, camel caravans proudly dressed in the winning silky cloth of the competition (if they were among winners) or shinny, glittering “accessories”, led by their Bedu owners in four-wheel cars bursting with loud traditional music, were parading up and down the truck road constantly.
At the top of the Million Street was the arena where all the beauty competitions took place. Daily throughout the 10-day festival, dozens of purebred Asayel (Omani brown) and Majahim (Saudi black) camels, belonging either to sheikhs or to tribesmen, were presented to a panel of Bedouin judges to pick up the best looking of them all.
“This is where I spent most of the time when I visited the festival with my friends. The presentation and the announcements were in Arabic, but we could work out what the judges were looking for,” said Martina Venus, who spent one day at the festival with her friends from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
“They are looking at body proportions, hair, teeth and general appearance,” she went on explaining.
Like most tourists at the festival, they too got the “royal” treatment.
“It was so amazing! As soon as we arrived at the arena, we sat in the VIP area, in those golden, comfortable armchairs! Then someone came and offered us Arabic coffee and tea. We felt so special!”
“In one of the breaks we were taken into the arena where we could have a closer look at the camels and one TV station even interviewed us. At the end, another person came and gave us books about the camel festival, told us in more details about how the judging is done and asked us if there is anything else we want to know.”
“I must say, in the eight years since I’ve been living in the UAE, this is the first time I come to such festival, and I was so impressed how friendly the camels are! What made the whole experience special, though, is how welcoming these Bedouin people are!”
For Martina’s friend, Carina Shimonek, the camel festival too was something unforgettable.
“I came to visit Martina three times — from Germany — and this was the highlight of all my trips,” she said.
As the sun was falling behind the soft dunes and visitors were heading back home or to their hotels in the region, small campfires began to flicker across the desert. Meat was put on the grill and sweet, aromatic tea was brewed. In the open majlis tents, the Bedouins, some coming from as far as Yemen and Jordan, were gathering to discuss the events of the day. As the last night, December 28, finally arrived, only the stars were left to light the quiet sand dunes. The desert city, with its camels, tents, blankets and memories, was once again packed in trucks and heading back to all corners of Arabia.