x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UAE's poet laureate of the camel world

Harab Salem Al Menhali is old enough to remember a UAE where the camel was all to the local population and almost all communication was oral. Now in his 80s, he keeps alive the traditional art of singing songs and reciting poems to the animals.

Harab Salem Al Menhali is well known as a writer of Nabati poetry and famous Bedu singer who often breaks out into song and traditional dance while attending the Al Dhafra Festival. Jeff Topping/The National
Harab Salem Al Menhali is well known as a writer of Nabati poetry and famous Bedu singer who often breaks out into song and traditional dance while attending the Al Dhafra Festival. Jeff Topping/The National

ABU DHABI // Harab Salem Al Menhali is the camel's songbird. His mind is a library of songs and poems, old and new about "camels, country and beautiful women".

His speciality is the first. When a camel is ill, Harab is called to save it with song. When a camel is victorious, Harab is asked to recite poetry in its praise.

"I'll charge you Dh1 million a word," says Harab. "Just joking. We are Bedu. We are generous. We elderly, we don't need money."

Every camel festival has its VIPs and the grizzled poet from Al Ain sits among them in the gilded chairs of the grandstands, his voice rising above the chatter of millionaires and sheikhs and over the rumble of camels below.

He raises his fingers to his ear, gazes into the distance and holds a single note that sits on the air before the melody begins.

He cracks jokes between numbers and leads people in dance with his twirling camel stick, lilting his body back and forth with an agility that defies his age. The world of camel is a world of song.

He sings:

Good luck for one who buys

Where this camel stands

She overshadows and is tall

Her face is attractive and her cheeks are beautiful

She has a long neck

All the people admire her

Gentlemen, buy this camel

Buy it with wealth, it is good luck for the right hand


"This is old, old," says Harab. "It's from four years ago."

Songs for the camel are as old as man's relationship with the desert companion. Camel love songs have changed in the last 20 years as the relationship has shifted from one of survival to one of sport.

Harab's skills will be in high demand in the coming weeks for the winter racing season.

"Now the sound is about the money," he says. "Before it was from the heart. Today's songs praise beauty and speed. They tempt buyers to open their wallets.

"Love the camel, love generosity."

Harab was born in the Liwa oasis when man and camel were co-dependent, decades before oil was discovered. Friends believe he is in his 80s. He jokes that he is a youthful 18.

"Before there was no writing," he says.

"Women didn't keep track of dates. When I was young, I grew tall with these camels. I lived only by milk. Before camels we didn't know how to eat.

"I know the routes of the Bedu. Before there was no water. Everything now is camels and beauty pageants, thanks to God."

He sings: "The country has risen for the national people and the foreigners."

Harab's surroundings have changed but his habits have not. He can be found most days at his Al Wathbah farm where he greets his favourite camel, Hadaba, nose-to-nose, an Emirati mark of respect usually reserved for close friends.

"If somebody paid me Dh100,000 I wouldn't sell her and I'm not a rich man," he says.

"If you have money you can buy more than 200 camels."

He employs the huffs, puffs, whirls and clicks used by trainers to guide camels "to walk, to work, to eat" but more importantly, he sings to them and recites poetry in a language that they understand.

"From one kilometre away, yes, they can hear you," says Harab.

At beauty festivals, his voice fills the grandstands every hour. But he does not need an occasion. Anytime is the right time for a song.

"At Asr prayer, at Maghrib prayer, at one o'clock, at two o'clock, at three o'clock," says Harab. "I have a good sound but I'm old."

His voice has made him a farm socialite.

"He is a really nice man, generous and he likes to make the people happy, always," says his friend Faraj Ali bin Hamoodah. "His voice, his songs, he's always making jokes. You know, people love him."

Harab writes songs and poems that he dedicates to each of Faraj's camels.

"Even in the Quran it says look at how God created the camel," Faraj says. "Look at them, they are a beautiful animal."

But it is not all about looks. Songs also heal.

"I swear, you know it," says Harab. "Yes, like a prayer to God, take care of this camel.

"It's the same with your children," he adds, comparing his songs to soothing lullabies. "Camels feel like men and you know, each camel is different. Some camels you love more than others."

With that, he walks off to dance.