Friday, January 2, 2015

Al Dhafra Festival 2014: Camels, Saluki and Sand

Camel crossing

If you want to see something unique to the Middle East, you can't miss the Al Dhafra Festival. There, in the middle of the desert near Liwa, a temporary town springs up each winter creating a place called "Million Street" because of the millions of dirhams that change hands at these annual events. Most of the money exchanged is for racing camels or camels in the camel beauty pageants, but many other things go on here:  a souk, Saluki (dog) racing, camel races and beauty contests, art contests, date (fruit) packing contests, classic car displays, horse races, car races of different types and more.

Ben holds Ezra on a camel display in the souk

Our adventure started when we left around 9. I had packed everything except some books for the trip, so we stopped by the post office to see if some books we were expecting from family had arrived. They had! The kids were very excited about them and that helped the 2 hour drive go much smoother, until Elias puked all over himself halfway there. We took him into the bathroom at a gas station and scrubbed him off and changed his clothes. He was fine after he puked, so we continued, just with an interesting smelling trunk.

The first place we visited upon arrival had a sign advertising "Children's Village" but they apparently don't open until the evenings, so we went to the nearby souk. There, a student from Ben's previous school in Abu Dhabi gave Ben a map and told him where the camel beauty contest and Saluki races were. While we were there, a sheik came through with an entourage and cameraman. We later saw his helipad with a helicopter and service men.
Camels in the viewing pens for their beauty contest
At the camel beauty pageant, one enters through a security scanner making sure you are not carrying anything harmful to the camels like weapons or lighters... and then you enter a giant tent with very nice padded chairs set up on risers like one of the most comfortable stadium equivalents you have ever seen. One of the young men passed out free bottles of water and soon, they let everyone go down and view the camels. Some young men were very excited and yelling in Arabic in the background, supposedly at the camels, the whole time. Talia and Elias were very excited to see the camels. In person they seem very big! One camel did a funny jumping thing where he would rock back and forth jumping from his front to his back feet as if he were excited... Talia told me he was dancing. She also said they sounded like big cows lowing, which I would agree with. The camels were all decorated with fancy beaded and tasseled straps on their backs and around their humps. The judges looked at the hair softness and quality, color, shape of the mouth and body to judge the most beautiful camel. The black camels were especially prized.

After the camel beauty contest, we went to the race track. (Betting is not permitted in Islam.) There, we saw camels racing with mechanical jockeys on their backs that are connected by remote control to the camel owner, who rides alongside the track on a specially prepared road and is able to remotely spur his camel on with the camel crop. (I suppose it is called a crop? It is some sort of stick used to prod camels along...)

Camel herders move camels via the racetrack between races
After the camels, we had a wait for the Saluki race. The weather was beautiful and there was green grass everywhere for the children to run around on and another comfortable stadium area, so the kids played until Elias had to go to the restroom... and the guy before him had (because there is no toilet paper, but sprayers or the bidet option) soaked the entire floor. Elias slipped in the water and got completely soaked. Fortunately, the nice breeze and sun had him dry pretty quickly, because he was out of a change of clothes by now. Every 5 minutes, an official would come through and tell us that "in 5 minutes" the race will start. This happened about three times, as is customary, and we just knew that when the screens showing the up-close version of the race came one, then it would be for real. When that happened, Talia and I took Ezra and went closer to the race track. The wind was very strong! With so many people stepping close to the track, we had to be careful to not get sand in our eyes.
A Saluki races for the prize
Before the Saluki raced, a herd of camels moving to a different location came through. A lady from the UK was also close to the track and was wondering what they used for the dogs to chase, a mechanical rabbit like the greyhounds, perhaps? No. It was the head half of a real deer carcass on the back of a truck. The owner of the fastest Saluki would be the winner of a fancy 4x4 truck, and they were very excited about the race. Just like the camel race, the owners raced alongside the track in their vehicles honking and yelling for their dog to win. After the race Talia was excited to see the dogs up close. They were sleek and shiny with pretty markings.

After this, it was around 2 p.m. (Elias' nap time and the baby was also falling asleep) and we hadn't had much for lunch besides fruit and nuts, so we left. The boys slept most of the way home and Natalia read one and a half of her new Anna Hibiscus (not an affiliate link, we just like them a lot) books that she loves. I'm excited that she loves to read and that her speed has really accelerated this year! Ben was hilarious the whole way home creating comedies in different languages and playing two different people in each language. (In one of them he was a Spanish-speaking car salesman trying to convince another Spanish-speaking customer that his vehicle was better than the other burro option.) We laughed a lot.

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