Meet the Magnificence Queens of Al Dhafra
“Camel No. 1! Camel No. 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 forefingers in the air. In the distance, two men were riding camels, each pulling a different animal on a leash. One of the camels was wrapped in a winning blanket with gold tassels.
Behind the men driving slowly across the sand dunes was a large convoy of honking pickup trucks. Men and boys stood in the beds of the vehicles and leaned out of all the windows, waving and cheering, many filmed the scene with their cell phones.
Without thinking I left my little rental car behind – I wouldn’t have got very far in the deep sand anyway – and jumped onto the next pickup. I wanted to be part of this spontaneous celebration.
The annual Al Dhafra Festival celebrates Bedouin traditions and takes place on the edge of the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter, considered the largest sandy desert in the world, near the Emirati city of Madinat Zayed, a two-hour drive southwest of Abu Dhabi.
Highlights of the meeting include Saluki races (the dogs are valued by Bedouins for their speed and eyesight), poetry readings, and exhibitions on falconry and traditional handicrafts. From fresh dates to camel milk, there is also a wide range of food and drinks.
However, the focus of the festival is on the camel beauty pageants.
During the week-long event, Al Dhafra is the epicenter of the camel universe. In the year I competed in 2019, more than 24,000 camels from across the Middle East competed for 60 million Emirati dirhams in prize money – the equivalent of more than $ 16 million. Large sums of money also change hands, as particularly beautiful camels are sold.
Some contestants trace the origins of the beauty pageants to a family dispute in 1993 when two camel breeders had to consult independent judges to determine whose animals were more beautiful.
Since then, camel beauty pageants have grown into a multimillion dollar industry with government sponsored cultural heritage festivals across the country.
The goals of the Al Dhafra Festival, officially initiated by the government in 2008, are to celebrate Bedouin culture, promote tourism and preserve the purity of certain camel breeds.
Bedouin society has all but disappeared in the past fifty years. Modern borders have stifled nomadic herding patterns, and the advance of economic and technological change has turned other traditional cultural practices on their heads.
For urbanized Bedouins, festivals like Al Dhafra are one of the few ways to meaningfully maintain their traditions.
Camel beauty pageants are divided into different categories based on their breed, age, gender, and whether a camel belongs to a sheikh or a tribal member. However, the criteria remain the same.
The ideal camel has long, straight legs, a long neck, a well-shaped hump (just in the right place on the lower back), cheeky ears, expressive eyes framed by curled up eyelashes, long drooping lips and of course a smooth coat and elegant posture .
No supermodel is complete without jewelry, and an entire industry has evolved around the beauty pageants to provide the right outfit. Camel cutters, for example, set up camp in Al Dhafra, where they sell brightly colored reins, shiny camel blankets with tinsel tassels, and even glittering necklaces made of plastic beads and strung coins.
Million Street, the street where the camel superstars strut, is being transformed into an open-air market with tents, caravans and food trucks.
The market isn’t just a place to buy camel hair and shampoo. Also on offer are colorful winter blankets, coffee service sets, stoves, carpets, hunting equipment, folding chairs, water hoses and a selection of clothing. Bright lights advertise restaurants that serve kebabs, cakes, and sweet karak chai. There’s even a laundry service so the revelers – both the people and the camels – look immaculate.
Emirati women play a limited role during the festival. Usually barred from participating in camel competitions, women and children spend much of their time in their family tents or in a nearby market.
However, as a foreigner, I appeared to be exempt from gender restrictions and was able to move around freely during my three-day visit, compete in the camel beauty pageants, and celebrate with the owners at the winning ceremonies.
As the sun went down and the sky turned a dark purple, the canopies adorned with thousands of lights began to sparkle between the dunes. Inside were members of the Bedouin tribes, usually scattered across the region, who had come here to honor their traditions. Each tribe had set up an ornate tent.
Invited to celebrate one of their camels’ victories, I joined the men of the Almuharrami family in their lighted tent and followed Waheela, a beauty queen.
“She has just been named the most beautiful young camel in the Middle East,” says Muneef, her 12-year-old owner, beaming with pride.
And then the music started and the men raised their bamboo sticks to perform the yowlah. During the traditional stick dance, men sang poetry and simulated a fight scene. By the time I left the party, the sky had turned ink black and the celebration lasted late into the night.
Kiki Streitberger is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in London and Germany. You can follow her work on Instagram.