x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Follow the year in the life of an Abu Dhabi racing camel

Camel racing season is here – and this week, The National launches a new blog about a year in the life of a debutant camel.

A close finish at the RAK camel race track is watched by the judges, with a commentator and a camera man, during an early morning camel race there. The sport is growing in popularity among Emiratis. Jaime Puebla / The National
A close finish at the RAK camel race track is watched by the judges, with a commentator and a camera man, during an early morning camel race there. The sport is growing in popularity among Emiratis. Jaime Puebla / The National

Camel racing season is here –and this week, The National launches a new blog about a year in the life of a debutant camel. Our star will be Mahloul, a three-year-old camel who has come of age.

Mahloul’s owner, Hamed Al Khatri, has guided The National around the Suan track in Ras Al Khaimah since the newspaper’s first year in 2008. He represents the new generation of camel owners in a family that have bred camels for generations.

There are no guarantees that Mahloul will be a champion racer and we will be on the lookout for other debutants before the competitive season kicks off in January.

Small races happen around the country every Friday morning, all year long. In the past two months, owners have been at the racecourse training younger camels for the main season.

When the cool weather begins in earnest, camels and their entourage of Bangladeshi handlers, Omani tack maker women with trailing children, Sudanese traders and Emirati owners will make a three-month tour of the UAE and Qatar, stopping for at least a week in every emirate except mountainous Fujairah.

The camel world is full of intrigue and espionage but when the uninitiated go to the track there is nothing to explain what is going on.

Owners dune bash beside the track in pursuit of their camel, rolling up and down dunes in 4x4s and talking into remote-control robot jockeys that double as walkie talkies. Drivers’ watch the pack, not the motorcade. It has all the elements of the country’s pandemonium driving culture and yet trackside crashes are, mercifully and miraculously, unheard of.

This is all great if you have a 4x4 to drive and a camel to follow. Without this, the sport can quickly grow tedious. Many expatriates, for example, see humour in the televised camel races where, to an outsider’s eyes, seemingly identical camels race awkwardly in what appears to be a straight line, again and again.

A camel connoisseur, however, will know a racer’s lineage for several generations, how that lineage relates to his own herd and what it means for future prospects. Money and reputation is at stake.

It is like baseball. You need to know the stats.

Beauty contests have politics all their own. Competitors camp for days before the biggest pageants, planning and plotting the best ways to ensure their camel’s fame and the downfall of their competitors. Racing is pedigree – beauty is psychological warfare. The dirham rules both sports, but champions can come from the unlikeliest places.

Camel owners relish the chance to explain how it works. After all, most do not participate strictly because of heritage or for financial gain. It is still a new sport that has been possible only since the advent of oil prosperity. Cars, swords and cash are won at major races, but the animals are costly and insurance does not exist. If a camel dies, wealth goes with it and the owner is left with nothing but memories, photos and maybe a few good offspring.

The real reason people participate is namoos, an Emirati word that roughly translates as “pride of victory”, used in congratulating winners in boat and camel races and bull-butting competitions.

The problem for non-Arab spectators is that many camel owners have little English. In fact, even fluent Arabic speakers require a specialist vocabulary to understand Gulf camel talk. The word “camel” is generally absent from racetrack vocabulary. Instead, camels are referred to by their colour, age, sex and pedigree. A camel will be called “the red one”, “the three-year-old”, “the she-camel”. A simple “camel” does not exist.

Heroes and heartbreak are made at the track and it has attracted a new generation of Emiratis without a family history of camel husbandry. The growing popularity of camel racing and pageantry mean the sport is undergoing a transformation in breeding, financing and regulation.

Newspapers and social media lament the ebbing of Emirati identity and culture, but every weekend Emiratis head to tracks across the country and breakfast in the company of their friends and, perhaps, their herds. It is one of the best examples of how Emirati culture need not replicate the past. Instead, it borrows from it, builds on it and improves upon it.

Camel mating season is now upon us. Beauty pageants kicks off this week, and the racing season is under way. Please join us for a year around the track and visit A Year at the Camel Races for regular updates that follow the weekend races.

azacharias@thenational.ae