Sunday, December 18, 2016

Doing Al Dhafra

judging pens from the grandstand
Yesterday, I went with some friends to check out the Al Dhafra Festival (famous for the camel beauty pageant) and I highly recommend the
experience! I'd read that you could find the festival by plugging the coordinates to the Tilal Liwa hotel into your GPS but I didn't realize just how close it is to the hotel which can be spotted as you drive to and from the main event spaces. There are also the following coordinates from the festival brochure: N23*33'44.01 E53*45'4.00 One way or another, you should aim for the purpose-built Heritage Souk- it's pretty easy to spot as flags announcing the festival lead toward it- there's a paved parking lot which stands out from all the high-activity stuff going on on random dirt/ sand roads on the way- and a couple of towers making it resemble a fort.

Enter the central courtyard and look lost! Look like a visitor! It seems you'll likely be approached by a tour guide wearing a badge on a red lanyard. If you're not approached, seek one out. We had a weird experience with a newbie tour guide at first who didn't seem to know what to do with us so it took a bit of time for us to hook up with the program. We wandered around the souk looking at some nice handicraft products- including some baskets that I vaguely regret not buying, they'd be nice for hauling camping or beach gear- and we checked out the classic car show before wandering toward the grandstands where we thought the beauty contest stuff seemed to be scheduled.

umm. not sure we're supposed to sit here...
We entered the backside of a grandstand, climbing a set of stairs which revealed camels in pens out front, and in the stands, all local guys seated not in anything so pedestrian as bleachers, no they were all sitting in stepped rows of gilt armchairs. It looked VVIP, like we had wandered in somewhere we shouldn't be. We backed out and tried the next entrance and at first thought it was the same deal, but no, here we spotted a few other touristy types in the fancy chairs, including my friend (and boss) from Abu Dhabi. She told me about how she'd been met by a tour guide who took her down to the camel pens and over to a royal family camp for lunch!  We grabbed some seats and started to chat up our neighbor who
actually, we CAN sit in the golden armchairs with the local guys
turned out to be a guy filming for the BBC so watch out, maybe you'll spot the festival on the international news channel. Here's where we connected with the guys with the red lanyard badges.

hump bling!
They took us down into the pens out front and explained a bit of the beauty pageant business. The camels in the pens that day were being considered for their appearance of strength and muscles. So far as I could tell they were being judged as racing camels but judged on their look rather than performance. Our guy pointed out a camel that had been shaved and said that she won't win. If  you shave them, it has to be long enough in the past that it's all grown in and natural looking. I was reading as well that the camels are checked and eliminated from competition if there's evidence that they've had lip injections! Floppy lips are good but they'd better be naturally floppy, no flop-enhancing drugs allowed! He told us about the buying and selling of winners that goes on every night on Million Road. Later we saw the back up of cars and had we planned/ known better, we could have come on an evening where we could stay late enough to go down and watch the buying and selling of camels for millions of dirham. Our guy told us about an American lady who had bought and sold one winning camel and made a tidy profit. I envisioned her taking her purchased camel home to a farm or something for training or at least grooming, but no, she did her buying and selling in one or two days
camel spit hair do
from the sounds of it. The camels were decked out in hump bling and necklaces. Winners later would be draped in a special blanket and I read that there's also a handicraft competition to make the best camel blanket for the final winner of the whole festival. Daily winners get SUVs and skyrocketing values on their camels in case they want to sell. Or if they'd rather keep their winners, they can also charge stud or breeding fees but not to members of their own extended family/ tribe. These camels all seemed friendly and into being photographed. They'd nuzzle our hands or hair with floppy lips and call out with some pretty fantastical sounds.

After a bit, we headed back to the grandstand and made plans to meet up with our guide in a bit to go to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan's camp. He's the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and, according to the brochure, the patron of the festival. First we watched the Feathered Saluki Beauty Contest- new this year! Saluki's are Arabian dogs that look a lot like greyhounds. We obviously don't know anything at all about judging Saluki beauty because our top pick was eliminated right off. Oh well. There are competitions on other days for the best dates, the best date packing, falcon beauty contests, Arabian horse racing, and, last but not least, the sour milk (laban) competition!

Speaking of sour milk, we were getting hungry and were drawn to an enormous BBQ smoker. Big enough, it turns out, to smoke huge hunks of camel if need be. This was less of a local thing, I learned it was owned by an Aussie and the BBQ guy was from North Carolina, but I did have a taste of really excellent camel meat that he told me still had about 3 hours left in the smoker.  It turned out we shouldn't have ordered food just then, if I were going to suggest an approach to others I'd say arriving at the festival in the afternoon around 2-3pm like we did is pretty good and if you want to try some excellent camel meat, maybe check out the BBQ but just get one serving to share among a few people because there's more food ahead!
camp entrance

majlis tent
We followed a host/ guide to the Sheikh's camp but they will also drive you if you prefer. Talk about glamping! There was a giant majlis where we were served coffee and tea and dates while traditional dancers performed in the courtyard. Seems that there was henna on offer over in the ladies only section but since we were a mixed group, we were in the main area. We were enjoying the dancing and sunset light, the big campfire and a steady supply of tea when one of the men invited us to stay for dinner at 7:30pm, a few hours away. As we had a long drive, we had to tell
inside majlis tent
him we couldn't stay. Then, after a moment he said, "come, eat."

We were led into a tent with carpets, fountains, tables and more gilded chairs, they sat us in front of giant silver tureens full of lamb stew, a sweet bread dish that was kind of like dry dessert stuffing and that I really liked, there were fatayer (stuffed pastry things) and fried sweet dough balls, crepe like things, and a dish called harees (kind a thick gravy/ savory pudding) that i am not a fan of. it was explained that local ladies made all the food and that it's the late afternoon meal, not dinner.

afternoon meal set up
The sun set, the fire was fed, lights came on making the camp twinkle. It was time for us to leave because of the 2.5-3 hour drive ahead. It had been a surreal experience being treated as a VIP guest but also as a tourist at the same time, enjoying access and free, delicious food in a way that had us interacting with locals on one level but also just spectating as total outsiders at this very local event. Strange and wonderful and if I weren't headed off on a trip in a few days, I might consider going back on a day when I could stay for dinner, or when I could go watch some camel buying and selling on Million Road. I'd talk to the guys with winning camels, ask them how they came to have winners- any special feed or grooming? I'd learn more about how they pick the winners and see if I couldn't be around to try my hand at a little camel milking. People we met seemed proud of the cultural event and proud of their heritage, happy to talk about it and show us a taste of that famous Bedouin hospitality.

traditional dancing

camp fountains, of course

the dancers dine with us, late afternoon meal

twinkling camp

other camps passed as we were leaving the festival

I found this video of the festival from a few years ago- the gal who is featured in it annoys me a little, she can slip into being patronizing and doesn't seem to totally get some of the Arabic humor because she doesn't bother to get stuff translated, at least not for the viewers- but she has some great footage of stuff i didn't get to see like the vet area where they check for doping and all!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Here comes the bride

Quite unexpectedly, I had the chance to attend an Emirati wedding a few weekends ago. 'Reception' probably does a better job of describing the event. 'Wedding' calls to mind a kind of ceremony with vows and an officiant. That part of things happens privately, at another time completely. There is a contract signed by the bride and groom, usually some family help set the terms, and there's an imam (like a priest) to make it official. The thing I went to is the public party which can happen quite a bit later than the contract signing (weeks, months) and for most of the "wedding" men and women are celebrating separately.

Maybe I should jump back to how I came to be at the wedding of a young lady I've never met. The bride is a ZU student, an advisee of my friend and neighbor, Jess. Jess had plans to to take another colleague, Yulia, and they stopped by on their way around 9:30/ 10 in the evening- things start late compared to most wedding celebrations in the US. Learning that I hadn't yet been to a local wedding, they insisted I throw on a dress and come along. No chance to glam it up and when we got there, I felt decidedly dowdy. But is this rude? Jess bringing a random  plus 2 to the celebration? Apparently not. The dinner (at 11pm-ish) was family style, a heaping excess of biryani and more than enough kebabs. Seats weren't going to be a problem in the hall. We were actually seated relatively front and center. I guess there's some cachet to having your teacher come to your wedding and if she brings friends, bonus! The more the merrier, demonstrates how many people want to celebrate with you. 

couch on the stage where the bride wound up
The hall - a place for weddings and other events- had tables around a stage and on the stage, a white couch sat amidst faux trees covered in cherry blossoms. As soon as we were seated, waitstaff came with trays, offering tiny cookies or chocolates and a seemingly unending array of beverage courses: karak tea (chai), mint tea, heba hunbra (a custardy drink with some sort of seeds, like chia or something), strawberry milk, Arabic coffee, black tea, pistachio drink (milky and sweet)... There were also appetizers on the tables when we got there- salads, dips- and ladies milling about, talking, visiting, and dancing.

It is the current custom and fashion for most Emirati women to wear abayas away from home. Some
milky pistachio drink
of our students let their abayas flop open at school revealing jeans,and long sleeve T shirts or maybe leggings or pants that look suspiciously like PJs with a tunic or something. Fairly modest clothing even under the abaya at least in terms of coverage. Apparently for a wedding, all bets are off! The ladies were in formal club wear, skin tight, cleavage-showing evening gowns. Make up and hair, done to perfection. One especially striking fashionista had a gown that was tea length or longer in back but cut up shorter in front revealing a gorgeous henna pattern down her shins that looked like exotic stockings. These were the younger and almost middle aged guests. The grandmas and older aunties wore caftan-like dresses with traditional colorful trim designs made of braided metallic thread. A few ladies just wore everyday abayas too, but most seemed to use this as an opportunity to dress up.

So around the time dinner made it to all the tables, the already loud constant music went up a few notches to signal that the bride was coming out. She wore a poufy white dress with a big train and took mincing steps to the stage while professional photographers snapped pictures. She made her way to the couch on stage where they arranged the dress around her for more photos. Then guests- friends, sisters, aunties, Jess- took turns going up to sit beside her on the couch for a bunch of pictures. There seemed to be a bit of a pecking order as to who went up for their photo with the bride first, second third... Some of the bride's fellow students came and took Jess up when it was a good time for her to go. 
tea, cola, strawberry milk with gelatin bubbles

After about an hour of this, there was another swell in the music and the DJ (who must have been behind a curtain where he couldn't see the ladies but could be heard) shouted Hamid! Hamid! Hamid! (seems this was the groom's name) Nearly every woman in the place grabbed up their abaya and shayla (hair covering) and threw it on- all the glitter and skin covered in a flash! A couple of women arranged an elaborate veil- more like a hood really- over the bride's hair and face. And then the groom came in escorted by about 5 other men. Maybe his father, some brothers or friends? Photographers took a million pictures and grandmas and aunties, older women, tossed fistfuls of 5 and 10 dirham notes (about $1.50 and $3 values) in the air and the kids there went crazy collecting them. Then all of the guys except the groom left and the bride's veil was removed. The couple held hands and together used a small sword to cut the wedding cake. The old ladies tossed more money in the air for the kids and more photos were taken.

The groom is in brown- photos of the men were no problem
The taking of photos was interesting. I don't have very many because I'd been warned, it's not appropriate. There seemed to be a bit of a divide. The table in front of us included about 5 younger women who were not shy about snapping lots of pictures of the bride and each other. When one swung her camera around to our table- there was a speedy reaction. One woman pulled her shayla over her face and held up her hand to block it, another yelled at the young lady, a third walked over to the young photographer and scolded her somewhat intensely. Probably one of the most interesting things I witnessed was one of the photo gals took a snap of the bride and groom holding hands and in the picture, she captured their outfits, but she cut their heads off in the picture. Her friends liked her shot so much, they were taking pictures of her picture on her phone. My best guess was that this is a way to share photos of the dress without being disrespectful or oversharing face and hair which are kept more private.

Fairly quickly after the cake, the bride and groom walked out of the hall holding hands and setting off on their adventure together. Abayas came back off for some, there was a bit more dancing, but the action was basically over at that point. I think there were another few beverages on offer, but the party was wrapping up. We danced our way out the door and that was that!