Celebration of beauty, and all things Bedouin

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Al Badi tribe in northern Oman held its annual Majaz Festival over the weekend, celebrating the shared desert ancestry in the region, their love for camels and the poetry that is written in their honour.

The guests entered with poetry, striding into the party on camels and singing: “We came on the best camels and riding them is a source of pride and dignity.”

The Majaz Festival starts and ends with poetry. Hosted by the Al Badi tribe, the party takes months to organise and lasts just a few short hours. Men arrive by camel, not car, for a celebration of the Bedouin arts – camel and horse racing, shooting, dancing and drumming. The sixth annual festival on Saturday celebrated the cultural diversity of the Saham district on the Batinah coast in north Oman.

Above all else, there was poetry. There was hambal al bosh, sung by travellers to honour their hosts upon arrival at special occasions. There was wanah, poetry traditionally performed at night in pairs, and there was taghrud – camel “twitterings” sung to keep the great beasts and their riders motivated as they travel long distances.

“We work all week at home,” says Darwish Mattar Al Badi, 50, one of the festival’s celebrated poets. “There’s all that work at home, but when we come to parties, all those thoughts leave us and there’s poetry.”

Majaz is an agricultural area in Saham, a region on the Batinah coast. As Saham’s geography changes from the coastal plains to mountains, so does its culture, with each area having its own dialects, songs and dances. Some traditions trace their roots to a maritime culture, others to an ancestry shared with the Bedouin hundreds of kilometres across the Arabian Peninsula, in Al Ain and Al Dhafra in the Emirates.

While large family weddings and celebrations are common, the Majaz Festival is open to all families and government dignitaries. Each family from Majaz contributes, and the planning committee has 50 members to ensure that all families and cultures are included.

But early on Saturday morning, the hundreds of guests expected were nowhere to be seen. The makeshift car park behind the tents was nearly empty, just a couple of Land Cruisers and a Nissan Patrol. The route to the party had been carefully marked with simple signposts guiding guests through twisting roads off the coastal Batinah motorway through palm grooves and ­banana plantations on to an empty gravel plain.

Instead, guests took a different route, travelling by camel. Those who lived too far away had brought their camels the night before. “Why drive?” says Khamees Rashed, 58. “Leave the car. Keep it parked.”

Families entered the party one at a time, each with their own herd of camels and words of praise for the hosts. “We came to fulfil our obligation, do not say we didn’t honour the invitation,” they sang as their camels strode on to the grounds.

Mr Rashed had prepared his camel that morning and set off from his farm, about five kilometres away. He had prepared the poetry he wanted to recite for the occasion days earlier and a camel fitting for the recitation, Amirya, his most active.

“The poem must match the camel’s personality,” he says.

Amirya was dressed for the occasion in a woven blanket and a sheepskin saddle. Other camels wore bright pompoms or lockets of silver as protection from the evil eye. On arrival, Amirya and Mr Rashed settled beside 200 other camels lined up at the head of the racetrack. Mr Rashed sat with friends on the dusty mounds at the edge of the track, where talk included the ­notable victory of Saif bin Khamis, an Al Badi businessman whose race camel recently won a major victory in Abu Dhabi, and poetry that had been composed for that day.

The men work as accountants and teachers, bankers and engineers. Nearly all had written taghrud poetry for the occasion, both illiterate elders who know dozens of verses by heart and young men who had composed poems on their iPhones.

The nomadic art form of taghrud has specific rhythms and can help camels keep a smooth and quick pace, entertaining rider and animal through long trips in the desert.

“Camels need a lot of training to go straight and keep the pace,” says Salem Humaid, one of the trainers, who believes he is in his sixties.

“You have to teach them like school. When they are young they don’t know anything and you have to teach them how to sit and you have to teach them how to have a smooth rhythm.”

A taghruda – sung poetry – may praise the friendship between rider and camel (“I do not ask for your milk, only your companionship”), a camel’s beauty (“when the cold breeze passes by, I remember the red camel with the long stride”) or the beauty of the land. A taghruda must emphasise beauty above all else.

Should the topic of a taghruda be a women’s love or beauty, discretion is important.

Whatever the words, it is known that camels love music. Mr Rashed takes his camels on a 60-kilometre trek two or three times a year to keep them healthy. As any driver knows, it can be hard to keep focused when the road is long – this is where the art of taghrud is essential.

“You know they are a very clever animal and they can do almost everything, but they can’t talk to us,” he says. “We can’t communicate. So when we sing, this motivates the camel and encourages it to keep going.”

Translation is difficult, even for bilingual speakers.

“You know Google translate? You know how Google does not work?” says a young poet. “It is like this. Nobody can put these words into English.”

While Mr Rashed may still make long journeys with his camels and recites taghrud on a weekly basis, the pressures of modern life mean that the opportunity for recitations are more limited for others. As such, Al Majaz decided to start the cultural festival six years ago.

“These gatherings are important,” says Mr Mattar, who recited wanah poetry after the camel races. “Our culture is renewed at weddings, at Eid and at festivals – any time of happiness. Sadness brings its own poetry, but that’s poetry of a different kind.”

The festival also serves as a wedding reception for young men, who traditionally celebrate with a men’s reception on a different day to the women’s party. This year, Qais Rashed Al Badi, 23, celebrated his wedding.

He sat in the seat of honour at the front of the main tent, dressed in a yellow mussar with a matching shawl around his waist. A metre-long rifle was by his side with a khanjar daggar and two phones tucked into his shawl.

Although he was the only groom this year, there are usually several in attendance. The women’s reception will be hosted in two weeks’ time in the bride’s hometown, Buraimi.

“Everyone’s here, people from Muscat and from Sohar,” said the groom, a recent graduate. “It’s an opportunity and it’s affordable. If you don’t marry at the festival, it can cost 10,000 [Omani] riyals (Dh95,431). Here, everything is provided. All I had to do is get dressed. It was a very excellent time but the best thing was the poetry. Al Badis love poetry.”

Mr Mattar agrees.

“It’s a Bedouin art done from the Batinah to Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. It’s a kind of flattery for camels, for the open desert, for the green, for the sea and for the palms. It’s passion. When a man loves a woman, he courts her. He must court beauty.

“There just must be poetry. It lifts man and it lifts the heart.”