Camel fair's trek into the past

Bedouin tribesmen have driven their animals sometimes hundreds of kilometres to celebrate their culture at the region's premier trade event.

United Arab Emirates - Madinat Zayed - Jan 29 - 2010 : Camel wrangler direct the animal at the Al Dhafra Festival. ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP Camel Festival 03.jpg

AL GHARBIA // The question that had to be asked was, "Why walk all that distance?" Hamad bin Ramis al Minhali had what should have been the obvious answer.

"Why would we truck the camels over here?" he asked. "It's not the Bedouin way. Our grandfathers trekked across all the deserts of Arabia. Our journey lasted only 22 days but their journeys often lasted for months or simply never ended as they trekked from one oasis to another to trade and sell goods with other tribes." His answer was one that reflected the spirit of the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, meant to celebrate and preserve the culture, heritage and tradition of the Arab desert nomad.

For Mr al Minhali, 25, and his father, Ramis bin Saleh, an Emirati, the trek to the event in the Al Gharbia town saw them drive the 1,000km at camel speed from the Saudi city of Al Kharj. Yesterday afternoon they, along with an entourage consisting of 50 Majaheem camels, family members, and dozens of members of their tribe, had only 3km to go to reach their encampment. The scene was a spectacular one as the camels made their way from paved roads across rust-coloured sand dunes, followed by more than 30 4x4 vehicles and a dozen men and boys on foot.

Inside the vehicles traditional Arabian music was blaring over the stereo speakers as both men and young girls danced in their seats to it. They were in a celebratory mood as they approached the normally sleepy town, which had once again come to life with the start of the third annual festival. For the past week, camels have been the spectacle as they slowly strolled through the town's central district, making their way to Madinat Zayed.

The 50 camels had cost the al Minhali family Dh11 million (US$3m) to purchase. With some pride, Mr al Minhali the younger said: "One of them my father bought for Dh5m. He is a stud and is worth so much because he is a purebred and has fathered several calves. "He won't be up for sale during the festival but we brought him to show him. But, then again, if someone makes an extremely generous offer, my father might consider it."

Organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the festival's objective is to introduce Bedouin culture to visitors and activate heritage tourism in Al Gharbia, stimulating its economic activity, and creating a commercial market for buying and selling camels Amanda Holmes, 46, an Australian teacher and resident of Al Dhafra, said the festival had brought "very good exposure for the area".

For the past week she has seen hundreds of camels coming through her city by truck and on foot. "This year's festival seems to be more massive than ever before," Ms Holmes said. "It's the first time it is being held during the holidays. Many from my school are taking part. One Emirati teacher I know is entering the date-packing competition and has been looking all around for decorative boxes she can use."

"Some of the boys from the high schools have been hired to serve coffee to visitors," said Helen Robb, a British schoolteacher and resident of Al Dhafra. "The festival boosts the economy here." For Saleh al Mansouri, 41, an Emirati, the trip to Al Dhafra began three days earlier from the town of Gheyati approximately 140km away. He too had walked his 35 Mahaliyat camels to the festival. He and his brother, Mansour, 35, were four-wheeling across the dunes in a Toyota Tundra and a Nissan pickup truck. As one of the camels stopped or strayed from the group, they would honk their horns and rev their engines at it to encourage it to move along.

"The Al Dhafra Festival is the premier camel trade event in the region," he said. "I am here to sell, trade and auction off my camels." The festival has brought together hundreds of camel merchants from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Dozens of cars from different GCC countries could be seen along the highway, coming from Abu Dhabi and from the Saudi Arabian border. The majority of non-UAE participants are from the eastern and central part of Saudi Arabia.

Fahd al Otaibi, 53, drove all day yesterday from Riyadh and was awaiting the arrival of his 20 Majaheem camels. "The Majaheem camels are from Najd [the central region of Saudi Arabia] and are very much sought after here," Mr al Otaibi said. "I bought the camels there for Dh2m and will auction them off here. Those I don't sell I will take back with me and sell them in Saudi Arabia, though they won't get me the price I would get here."

He is hoping to double his money taking with him Dh4m back to Saudi Arabia. Along the aptly named Millions Street, which runs through Madinat Zayed, around 200 stalls have been set up. Like car showrooms, they are packed with camels of all shapes, sizes and colours. Millions of dirhams will change hands as camels are bought and sold. Though there will be many camels sold over the next 10 days, numerous other events will take place, including 44 camel races, a date-packing competition, a poetry competition for adults and one for children, as well as photography and cooking contests.

This year, more than 1,200 owners have registered to attend the festival, bringing with them 23,000 camels. Organisers this year have allotted Dh42m in prizes and cash for the fastest, most beautiful and most virile camels. Away from the pungent smell of the stalls, a children's village has been set up as well as a traditional souq. Emirati women could be seen yesterday bringing in their goods, which included incense, spices, perfumes, dates, dresses and veils.

Um Khaled, an Emirati in her late thirties, brought her three daughters aged 12 to 16 to the market to sell traditional items they have collected. For the past few weeks, they have been searching all across Abu Dhabi for authentic souvenirs they can sell to tourists. "My husband is here as well," Um Khaled said. "He went to look at the camel stalls looking for his friends that he hasn't seen since last year. He has two camels which he has been trying to sell since last year's festival.

"We are not a wealthy family and keeping these camels is costing us money. "We got by for some time selling camel's milk but that was not enough. So what my daughters and I decided to do this year was collect souvenirs and sell them to tourists." When asked what her husband will do if he was unable to sell them this year, she said, "Maybe he will slaughter them and sell their meat." Camel milk and meat will be available at this year's festival.

The festival will run from today until February 8 from 10am to 9pm.