The Remarkable Tale of Qassim the Yemeni

The camel track’s best rags to riches story is not one of sheikhs or golden swords.

The old town in Sana'a, Yemen. Qassim began his journey across the Arabian Peninsula from his village outside Sana'a. ( Jaime Puebla / The National / August 14 2008)
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Many pray that camels will be their making.

But the track’s best rags to riches story is not one of sheikhs or golden swords.

It is the story of Qassim the Yemeni, once an illegal immigrant who walked from Yemen to Dubai to make his fortune.

Qassim began his journey from a the village near Sana’a, hitching a ride across country to the Yemen’s Mahra Sultanate on its easternmost border. From there, he traversed the mountainous to Salalah, Oman. It took about six days on foot, a journey of about 100 km from the Yemen border.

“I walked everywhere before, I was light footed,” recalled Qassim earlier this year. “In my youth, how I could walk! I was so thin.”

Qassim left the balmy tropics of Salalah in a shared cab that took him through the limestone plains of Oman to Nizwa at the base of the Jebel Akhdar highlands. From the city of Ibri, still 100 km from an Emirates border separated by an arid mountain range, he ascended the Hajjar mountains into Al Ain.

“I came to the Emirates any way I could,” said Qassim. “I slept with the snakes. What to do?”

Arriving, he called on his compatriots, who gave him a job selling honey from the back of a car.

Yemeni honey is Arabia's most acclaimed, with properties said to improve marriage, beauty and intelligence.

Now, Qassim the Yemeni had a voice as smooth and rich as the honey he sold. Before too long, he increased his stock to include coffee beans, dried dates and frankincense, anything he could fit in his car that there might be demand for at the track, where the men who own camels are always exceptionally well presented and well scented.

With more success, the Yemeni expanded his business to include sheep, goats, even cars. None could resist the lure of Qassim’s voice.

His moment arrived the day a camel auctioneer withdrew without notice. Men needed a voice, someone who knew camels, their owners and their history.

Enter Qassim. With quick wit and poetic verse, he parted owners from their dirhams.

From auctions, Qassim graduated into commentary.

He transferred to Ras Al Khaimah nine years ago from Dubai to comment on races for three-year-old camels at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Cup. His voice was so strong and so loved that people insisted he stay at Ras Al Khaimah’s Suan track. He has now lived in the Emirates legally for more than 16 years. He describes his sponsor as an “investor”.

“Now Qassim, he’s a joker, they use him anywhere,” said my friend Hamad Al Khatri, a Ras Al Khaimah camel owner. “All people know he’s the one with the voice. His tongue is the best thing he has.”