Meet the Beauty 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, shouting and pointing their index fingers in the air. In the distance, two men rode camels, each pulling another of the animals on a leash. One of the camels was draped in a winner’s blanket with gold tassels.
Behind the men, who were slowly crossing 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 every window, waving and cheering, many filming the scene on their phones.
Without hesitation, I left my small rental car behind – I wouldn’t have gone far in the deep sand anyway – and jumped into the back of the nearest van. I wanted to be part of this impromptu celebration.
The annual Al Dhafra festival celebrates Bedouin traditions and takes place on the edge of the Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, believed to be 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 gathering include Saluki races (dogs are prized by Bedouins for their speed and eyesight), poetry readings, and displays of falconry and traditional crafts. From fresh dates to camel milk, there is also a range of food and drinks.
At the heart of the festival, however, are the camel beauty contests.
During the week-long event, Al Dhafra is the epicenter of the camel universe. In 2019, the year I participated, over 24,000 camels from across the Middle East competed for 60 million Emirati dirhams in prize money, the equivalent of over $16 million. Large sums of money also change hands when selling particularly beautiful camels.
Some participants trace the origins of beauty contests to a family dispute in 1993, when two camel herders had to call in independent judges to determine which animals were the most beautiful.
Since then, camel pageants have grown into a multi-million dollar industry, with state-sponsored heritage festivals being 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 camel breeds.
Bedouin society has virtually disappeared over the past fifty years. Modern borders have stifled nomadic herding patterns, and the encroachment of economic and technological change has disrupted other traditional cultural practices.
For urbanized Bedouins, festivals like Al Dhafra are one of the few ways to maintain their traditions in a meaningful way.
Camel beauty contests are divided into different categories, depending on breed, age, gender and whether a camel belongs to a sheikh or a tribesman. However, the criteria remain the same.
The ideal camel has long, straight legs, a long neck, a shapely hump (in just the right place on its lower back), plump ears, expressive eyes framed by upward-curving eyelashes, long, drooping lips and , of course, a smooth coat and elegant posture.
No model is complete without jewelry, and an entire industry has grown up around beauty pageants to provide the appropriate accessories. Camel tailors, for example, set up camp in Al Dhafra, where they sell colorful reins, shiny camel blankets laced with tinsel tassels, and even glittering necklaces made of plastic beads and strung coins.
Million Street, the road along which the camel superstars strut, turns into an open-air market of tents, trailers and food trucks.
The market is not just a place to buy shampoo and camel shampoo. Also on offer are colorful winter blankets, coffee sets, stoves, rugs, hunting gear, folding chairs, water bottles and an assortment of clothing. Bright lights herald restaurants serving kebabs, cakes, and sweet karak chai. There are even laundry services to keep celebrants – both people and camels – in top condition.
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 seemed to be exempt from gender restrictions, and during my three-day visit I was able to roam freely, watch camel beauty contests, and join the owners in celebrations. winners.
As the sun set and the sky turned a dark purple, canopies adorned with thousands of lights began to twinkle 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 erected a richly 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 yowlah. During the traditional stick dance, the men sang poetry and acted out a battle scene. By the time I left the party, the sky had turned pitch black, the revelry lasting long into the night.
Kiki Streitberg is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in London and Germany. You can follow his work on instagram.