Going for a song at the Al Dhafra contest? Not this Dh3m camel

Meet Mahueba, pin-up of the beauty contests. The youngster already has her own theme songs and reams of poetry in praise of her.

Supporters of Mahueba rejoice at her victory. Photos: Ravindranath K / The National
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When Mahueba the camel left her camp she was worth Dh2.7 million. By the time she entered the gates of Al Dhafra camel beauty pageant she was worth Dh3.5million.

You could put this down to her looks. You could put this down to her walk. Or you could put it down to her theme song.

At the tender age of 3, a time when most beauty camels are still coming into their looks, Mahueba the Qatari was already a five-times undefeated winner, with tribal and regional titles in Saudi Arabia and first place in the two-year-old category for sheikh-owned camels at last year’s Al Dhafra pageant in Al Gharbia.

Her theme song had a challenge for would-be purchasers: Mahueba could not be bought.

“It’s saying we will not sell her ever,” said Mahueba’s owner, Ali Rashid Al Athba, 29. “She will stay with her spectators for love, forever. And we will not sell her. The words say she doesn’t belong to us, she belongs to all spectators.”

In the world of camel beauty, natural good looks are never enough. There are an estimated 30,000 camels at this year's Al Dhafra festival. Fame is value, and this is where Mahueba's music enters into it.

Mahueba’s motorcade to the judging pens was led by a pickup truck that blasted her theme song from a metre-tall loudspeaker. It did not speak of camel beauty in general terms but spoke of Mahueba, the one and only.

“The meaning of her name is that which makes the other competitors nervous all the time,” said Abdulla Rashid Al Athba, the brother of the owner. “She makes the others nervous because she has more beauty and she has the best colour. That’s why she alarms them, a danger alarm.”

Mr Rashid received the music that morning at 4am. It was sent over WhatsApp from Abu Dhabi after its production as a special gift for Mahueba’s big day.

She walked to the pens alongside 4x4s plastered with her photo and lines of poetry. Boys danced on the back of pickup trucks, twirling camel sticks and slashing the air with daggers. A Qatari flag bearer rode a racing camel beside Mahueba, boys carried a banner in Mahueba’s image. All of them danced and cheered to the tune of Mahueba’s theme song.

Competitors pulled up alongside the motorcade, shouting their offers to buy her to stop her from competing against their camels.

“Now she has exams,” said Mubarak Al Athba, 34, who drove with Mr Rashid, “and before the exams people want to buy her so they can take a good result.”

Her supporters lingered at the gate, knowing that her price would rise with each passing minute. The camel’s “adviser” Abu Salem Al Athba was on the phone, negotiating steeper prices even though he had no intention of accepting any of them. Two boys broke into dance, trotting back and forth, camel sticks in one hand and mobile phones playing music in the other. Then, the singing began.

Music gives a camel an adrenalin rush. An anxious camel pacing back and forth with its head extended is preferable to a camel that is relaxed.

Mahueba was unfazed by the excitement, solely intent on nibbling the hair of anyone who came close. Men fluffed up the soft fur on her hump with their camel sticks and surveyed the competition.

“I’ll tell you something,” said Hamad Al Athba, 23, eyeing Mahueba’s competitors as they walked through the gate. “I don’t see anyone who can beat her.”

He knew from the time of her birth that his older brother’s camel was special. “Like children, you can see from the first look if it’s special or not,” said Hamed’s twin, Ali.

Mahueba did not have just one theme song. She had five, penned especially in honour of her large dark eyes and her beautiful hump.

Each of her songs was for a different purpose: one about the hope of winning, another to boost her confidence, one that told her to not to look back, and two for triumph.

Such songs are an essential part of the camel beauty industry because they act as advertisements that praise the owner and his camel, they raise his fame and the animal’s value.

Music becomes a part of a camel’s story from the time of its first win. Poets send the owner compositions of exaltation through SMS and BlackBerry networks. The higher the prize, the more prestigious the poets. Many know the camels from birth through tribal and familial relationships and follow the animals’ careers avidly. “How can he write a thing without seeing and knowing her?” said Mr Rashid.

Camel owners offer the best poems to famous vocalists who decide if they are worthy of recitation.

Most compositions come from Saudi Arabia, where some conservatives believe musical instruments are forbidden in Islam. In place of musical instruments, recitations are recorded and heavily synthesised, sometimes supported by percussion or electronic chords. Vocal tracks are laid over each other.

Voices synthesised beyond human recognition become acceptable while instruments are not.

The crash of artificial thunder is an acceptable and popular substitute for the heavy orchestral arrangements used in classical Arabic music.

Non-instrumental poetry recitations are known as shellah. To untrained ears, the end result is more like a Euro-dance hit than a medieval madrigal. Even so, fans insist they are not songs or even music.

This kind of synthesised poetry has also become the soundtrack to illegal drag races organised informally on the festival sidelines. Conservative young men who smoke or drag race still claim to be pious in their preference for non-instrumental shellah music over the soaring violins of Arabic pop.

“There are rules,” said Saif, 23, a Saudi from Dammam who did not give his family name. “There is music that is talking only. Then there is music with piano, with orchestras. The guy who likes camels likes music with talking only.”

His Saudi friend, a slim man in his early twenties, played a sequence of classical Arabic oud music, Hindi love songs and European techno tracks on his mobile phone, citing them all as forbidden. Then, he played a camel shellah. “This, this is OK.”

Saif believes non-instrumental shellahs are growing in popularity but CD sellers at Al Dhafra disagree. This year their sales at Al Dhafra sales have been. In Saudi Arabia, though, business thrives.

Shellah usually follow a pattern. There is a verse about the owner, a verse about the camel, a verse about the family and a final verse acknowledging those who cannot be included in such a short poem.

Electronic interpretations became popular five years ago. The modern shellah is a product of a cross-border collaboration, constructed and shared over mobile phone networks.

Mahueba’s owner regularly receives poems from Emirati, Saudi, Kuwaiti and Qatari poets as photographs and word of her beauty spread through text messages and social networking sites.

Vocalists earn through production and performance, not sales. Poets volunteer their words but shellah vocalists command prices from Dh15,000 a poem. Orders for recitations are placed a month before major pageants such as Al Dhafra. After the song is released at the camel competition, it can quickly becomes a pageant classic and is shared across the Arabian Gulf on mobile networks. Shellah are considered public property.

Though they are seldom heard outside festivals, vocalists and poets are adored by youth like any pop star.

Mahueba’s celebration shellah was based on a poem by Mohammed Bin Gneafth, who made his name at the age of 24 with his 2009 hit Bin Bayran, a tribute to another Al Dhafra success story.

“This guy Bin Gneafth, he’s like Eminem to us,” said Ali. “He’s like Michael Jackson because he makes us happy and he makes us dance. He’s very famous.”

Two of Mahueba’s shellah, The Fans and Son of My Uncle, were performed by the Sinatra of the camel music world, Jafran Al Marri, who died recently in a car crash. “Oh Ali, nothing is impossible,” promises the first poem.

When Mahueba was declared the winner, the grandstand speakers erupted with Emirati music, a burst of stringed orchestral music filling the air.

For Mahueba’s followers, only Mahueba’s song would do.

They did not spontaneously break into song or throw their ghutras in the air. They rushed around their own metre-high speaker and put on Mahueba’s second song of the day, a song of victory. They lifted the giant speaker over their heads as if it were a boombox and sang and danced all the way back to the camp, Mahueba’s song echoing into the night.