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“Camel No. 1! Camel No. 1!”

I had simply arrived on the Al Dhafra Competition, and younger boys in kanduras, or lengthy tunics, had been working towards my automotive, shouting as they pointed their index fingers within the air. Within the distance, two males rode camels, every pulling one other of the animals on a leash. One of many camels was draped in a gold-tasseled winner’s blanket.

Behind the boys, slowly making its means throughout the sand dunes, was a big convoy of honking pickup vans. Males and boys stood within the beds of the autos and leaned out of all of the home windows, waving and cheering, lots of them filming the scene on their telephones.

With out a second thought, I left my little rental automotive behind — I wouldn’t have gotten far within the deep sand, anyway — and jumped on the again of the closest pickup. I needed to be a part of this impromptu celebration.

The annual Al Dhafra Competition celebrates Bedouin traditions, and takes place on the fringe of the Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, thought-about the most important sand desert on the planet, close to the Emirati metropolis of Madinat Zayed, a two-hour drive southwest of Abu Dhabi.

Highlights of the gathering embrace Saluki races (the canine are prized by the Bedouin due to their velocity and eyesight), poetry readings and exhibitions on falconry and conventional artisanship. From recent dates to camel milk, there’s additionally an array of foods and drinks.

On the coronary heart of the pageant, nonetheless, are the camel magnificence contests.

Through the weekslong occasion, Al Dhafra is the epicenter of the camel universe. In 2019, the 12 months I attended, greater than 24,000 camels from all around the Center East competed for 60 million Emirati dirham in prize cash — the equal of greater than $16 million. Huge sums of cash additionally change arms as significantly lovely camels are bought.

Some contributors hint the origins of the sweetness contests to a household dispute in 1993, when two camel breeders needed to name on some impartial judges to find out whose animals had been extra lovely.

Since then, camel magnificence contests have advanced right into a multimillion-dollar trade, with state-sponsored heritage festivals held all throughout the nation.

The goals of the Al Dhafra Competition, which was formally initiated by the federal government in 2008, are to have fun Bedouin tradition, generate tourism and protect the purity of sure camel breeds.

Bedouin society has all however vanished within the final fifty years. Trendy borders have stifled nomadic herding patterns, and the encroachment of financial and technological change has upended different conventional cultural practices.

For urbanized Bedouins, festivals like Al Dhafra are one of many few methods they’ll meaningfully maintain their traditions.

Camel magnificence competitions are divided into totally different classes, in line with breed, age, intercourse and whether or not a camel is owned by a sheikh or a tribesman. The standards, nonetheless, stay the identical.

The best camel has lengthy straight legs, a protracted neck, a shapely hump (in simply the proper spot on its decrease again), pert ears, expressive eyes framed by upward curled eyelashes, lengthy droopy lips and, after all, a smooth coat and stylish posture.

No supermodel is full with out jewellery, and a whole trade has sprung up across the magnificence pageants to offer the suitable accouterments. Camel tailors, for instance, arrange camp at Al Dhafra, the place they promote colourful reins, shiny camel blankets laced with tinsel tassels and even glittering necklaces product of plastic beads and stringed cash.

Million Road, the street alongside which the camel superstars strut, transforms into an open-air market of tents, caravans and meals vans.

The market isn’t merely a spot to buy camel tack and shampoo. Additionally on supply are colourful winter blankets, espresso serving units, stoves, rugs, searching gear, foldable chairs, waterskins and an assortment of clothes. Shiny lights promote eating places that serve kebabs, muffins and candy karak chai. There are even laundry companies to maintain the celebrants — each the folks and the camels — wanting pristine.

Emirati ladies play a restricted function through the pageant. Typically excluded from collaborating within the camel competitions, ladies and kids spend a lot of their time round their household tents or at a close-by market.

As a foreigner, nonetheless, I appeared to be exempt from the gender restrictions and, throughout my three-day go to, was in a position to stroll round freely, attend the camel magnificence contests and be a part of the homeowners on the winners’ celebrations.

Because the solar set and the sky turned a dusky purple, canopies adorned with hundreds of lights started to glitter among the many dunes. Inside had been members of the Bedouin tribes, often scattered all around the area, who had come right here to honor their traditions. Every tribe had arrange a lavishly adorned tent.

Invited to have fun certainly one of their camels’ wins, I joined the boys of the Almuharrami household into their illuminated tent, following Waheela, a magnificence queen.

“She has simply been topped essentially the most lovely younger camel within the Center East,” stated Muneef, her 12-year-old proprietor, beaming with pleasure.

After which the music started, and the boys lifted their bamboo canes to carry out the yowlah. Through the conventional stick dance, males chanted poetry and simulated a battle scene. By the point I left the get together, the sky had turned inky black, with the revelry lasting deep into the night time.

Kiki Streitberger is a photojournalist and documentary photographer primarily based in London and Germany. You’ll be able to observe her work on Instagram.