Saturday, February 11, 2017

All the Pretty Camels



Where Camels Race and Win Beauty Contests

The New York Times  by Christine Hauser  February 10, 2017

Camels, the ungainly ships of the desert, have been part of the history and folklore of Arabian culture for centuries. They’ve inspired poetry and song, served as transportation and racing companions, and have been a source of milk and meat for nomadic travelers.

The traditional camel race during the Sultan Bin Zayed Heritage Festival, held at the Sweihan racecourse on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

In the United Arab Emirates, the government has made preserving the camel’s role in its heritage a priority in a country where oil wealth has fueled a modern skyline, a booming economy and an enduring way of life. Cuisine based on camel meat has evolved, and as The New York Times reported, it has found its way into the modern fusion scene in the region. 

But as cosmopolitan city life increasingly overshadow traditional desert life, one festival aims to preserve tradition and introduce U.A.E. youths to their heritage. The Sultan Bin Zayed Heritage Festival, a two-week event about 60 miles outside Abu Dhabi, celebrates camels in all their unwieldy glory.

Handlers helped jockeys to their camels and into position for a race at the festival. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The festivities feature handicrafts, a heritage village, camel beauty contests and camel races on the Sweihan racecourse. 

Camel racing has undergone a transformation in the Gulf countries, particularly after an outcry over the use of child jockeys. In the U.A.E., a federation of seven principalities, camel racing became more organized in the 1990s. The country had been using child jockeys, some as young as 2 or 3, and importing them from nations like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan. 

But a scandal over the abuses of boy jockeys helped end the practice. In 2002, a royal decree in the U.A.E. banned camel owners from using children under the age of 15. As the legislation went into effect in 2005, the U.A.E. signed a $7 million agreement with Unicef to help repatriate the children.

A tight pack of camels in a race at the heritage festival. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

After the U.A.E. ban, a new industry developed: small, specially designed robots made to resemble the child riders and outfitted with silks and fake helmets. They are affixed to the backs of the camels, and camel owners and trainers with remote controls would race in their luxury cars alongside the robot riders on the track. 
 
A tight pack of camels in a race at the heritage festival. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

After the U.A.E. ban, a new industry developed: small, specially designed robots made to resemble the child riders and outfitted with silks and fake helmets. They are affixed to the backs of the camels, and camel owners and trainers with remote controls would race in their luxury cars alongside the robot riders on the track. 

Small robots have taken the place of children as the preferred jockey for camel racing in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times Publish Date December 26, 2014

A New York Times reporter watched one such race firsthand, in which the camel’s handler, driving alongside the animal, clucked softly into a walkie-talkie that transmitted information to the mounted robot to make the camel run faster.

Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed al-Nahyan inspecting camels during the festival named after him. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The Sultan Bin Zayed event showcases one of the few prominent camel races in the region that still uses human jockeys, according to an Agence France-Presse report. The U.A.E. legislation in 2005 said the authorities would enforce the age restrictions by comparing birth certificates and performing a medical exam.

Workers gathered camels at the Sweihan racecourse before a training race during the annual festival that began last week. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

Camel owners pay tens of thousands of dollars to breed and raise their animals, preserving bloodlines and honing their conformation — their shape, balance and structure — through the generations.

The festival, which began last month, ends this week. In the camel beauty contest, contestants were divided into seven categories, including the “two-year-old virgin female camels,” “pregnant female camels about to give birth,” and “five-year-old (and above) male camels.

A winner of a camel beauty contest was covered with saffron. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

Jurors base their scores on the shape of the camels’ head, neck, hump and posture. Eyelash length and the sheen of the camels’ hair also factor into the marks. When one winner was picked, the animal was dusted in a cloud of saffron.


A woman performing a traditional dance during the festival. CreditKarim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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