Atta Allah – God’s Gift
The Arabic root for camel, jamel, is also the root for beautiful, jameel. With their long eyelashes, curious eyes, and long, slender legs, I do think camels could be considered beautiful creatures. Their colour can vary from the lightest of cream, through many hues of brown all the way to black. During the Al Dhafra Festival that is held in December in the Western Region a camel beauty contest is one of the many competitions that takes place. The qualities that are looked at include the size of the head, shape of the nose, length and posture of the neck, shape and position of the hump, as well as firmness of the ears.
Perfectly suited to this beautiful, barren desert landscape, they posses an extraordinary stamina over long distances, can survive for long periods without anything to drink, and can tolerate a wide range of body temperatures, while losing very little water through sweat, as the scorching heat doesn’t bother them as much as it does us humans.
Apart from being beasts of burden in the past, criss-crossing vast swathes of the world, transporting all sorts of valuable commodities, they were also an excellent source of food and drink. The Bedu, when they had nothing else to eat, lived off camel milk, which is far more nutritious than cow milk. In Arabian Sands Wilfred Thesiger writes: “Bedu believed that a camel will go dry if milked with dirty hands or into a bowl which was soiled with food, especially meat or butter. He stroked a camel’s udder, talking to her and encouraging her to let down her milk, and then standing on one leg, with his right foot resting on his left knee, he milked her into a bowl which he balanced on his right thigh.”
Their wool was used to weave rugs, pillows and clothes, while camel skins were used to make shoes, bags and water containers, and sometimes even musical instruments. Nowadays they are reared for meat, milk, breeding and racing. Camel meat is said to taste like sweet mutton, and is still eaten at festive gatherings. The fatty hump is considered a mouth-watering delicacy.
Historically an Arab’s wealth was often based on how many camels he owned, and the camel was regularly used as an alternative form of currency. A bride’s dowry or zakat (alms) was often paid in the form of camels.
Camels are Ata Allah or God’s gift, and the Bedu treated them as friends and loyal companions. They never struck or ill-treated their camels and on long journeys the camels were always given priority when reaching water sources. The Arab tradition of breeding and racing camels as status symbols stems from the importance of the camel within traditional Bedu society.
The family tree of racing camels is extremely important, as it is the lineage that gives them much of their value. Enormous amounts of money change hands when top racing camels are sold, and easily run into millions of dirhams.
As a camel’s speed is considered to be a divine gift, no studding fees are charged, and the owner of an exceptional male camel is obliged to share its breeding freely. Females are only allowed to mate with one male during the autumn breeding season to ensure the lineage of the new born. Camels, interestingly, mate while sitting down.
Hobbled or couched camels are often left to roam freely, and as there is an estimated 378,000 camels in the UAE, it roughly means that there is one camel for every twenty-one people, and one never goes very far without encountering one.
Since arriving in the UAE two years ago, I have been bugging my husband about taking me to the camel races. I finally got my day at the races when we joined an Al Ain Weekend’s excursion. Although the racing season runs more or less from October to April in the cool early morning hours, one can never be sure when exactly races will take place at the smaller race courses. It is a male dominated environment where a lot of staring is at the order of the day, and therefore advisable to go in a group. Going with the knowledgeable Amro will also ensure that you actually understand what is going on. His way of explaining things and delightful sense of humour always makes for an enjoyable day out.
Long gone are the child jockeys that were once used. They have been replaced by robots, and the spectacle of owners and trainers in their huge 4×4’s jostling for a pole position to race alongside their camels around the track, is quite the spectacle. The racetrack is long and one really only see the start of the race, but that is most probably the most exciting part of the whole affair anyway.
* The Al Ain Camel Market, located just behind Bawadi Mall, attracts breeders and buyers from all over the UAE.
** The most active camel track in Al Ain is most probably the one you would reach by using the following GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 19′ 12.8″ / E 55° 41′ 4.1″
*** An interesting article on an old Bedu dubbed the “Poet Laureate of the Camel World”