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!

No comments:

Post a Comment