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Friday, April 27, 2007

Saudi Arabia Holds Camel Beauty Pageant

Between the years 1975 and 1980 I lived in Saudi Arabia (KSA) and have often longed to return for a visit. Actually I was trying to find an article to post about the crackdown on terrorists in KSA in which 173 suspects were arrested
when I happened upon the article below about the camel beauty contest.

When I spoke recently to a family member who goes back and forth between the States and KSA, he told me, "Robin, you were there in the good times, before it all changed". Things have changed all right, Mo over on Above and Beyond posted about a fantastic theme restaurant in Khobar. I was rather taken aback since when I lived in Khobar, the only decent restaurant was in a hotel that more than likely doesn't exist anymore and the best thing that ever happened was a drive up pizza place opened where you could call ahead and go pick up your pizza. If you live in KSA and just happen to be reading this, don't laugh, because that Saudi Arabia is NOT the Saudi Arabia of today with all it's "modern conveniences" Terrorism was never an issue thirty years ago either, so things have changed in ways no one back then would have anticipated.

One thing that has not changed, and I pray never will, is that there are still bedouins (though I'm pretty sure not as many) with their camels. In a desert where man can perish due to lack of water, this graceful animal can go for miles and miles without water. When living in KSA I saw camels quite frequently, sometimes in the back of a pick up truck being transported somewhere, more often along the sides of the roads.

When we lived in Riyadh, my rather crazy Swedish girl friend decided we should go to the camel races. So we did, just the two of us. Little did we know that there wasn't a special section for women so the befuddled ushers seated us in the royal family box where we sat directly behind then Crown Prince Fahd. He was ever so gracious to us and welcomed us to sit there with him. But when the horse race portion started and a particular horse was stubborn and reared up in the starting gate, my girl friend, Tess and I laughed out loud. That horse went on to win the race and just happened to belong to Prince Fahd. He turned around to us with a wry smile and said, "Ladies, do you like it that my horse won the race?" Were our faces RED. The camel races were amazing, with REAL jockeys, not the robots that are now being developed to race the camels.

One time we were traveling by car from Riyadh to Dammam which took about seven hours back then because there wasn't a freeway like now. We had gone miles without seeing anything. Then suddenly, there was a lone bedouin on his camel leading a small herd. He was dressed in a BRIGHT white thobe and had amunition belts strapped across his chest. I wanted to stop and talk to him so we did. Believe it or not, he asked us if we had any water because he was running low. We gave him a liter of water and he shared some dates with us. I wanted so very much to take his picture but he politely said no because of "al-ax", the image which appears which should not be reproduced in any way. So I have no picture, but I have the memory, of meeting a lone bedouin on a lonely desert road, sharing water and dates, and standing next to the absolutely beautiful camels that sustain bedouin life.

Saudi Arabia, Apr 28:
The legs are long, the eyes are big, the bodies curvaceous. Contestants in this Saudi-style beauty pageant have all the features you might expect anywhere else in the world, but with one crucial difference -- the competitors are camels.

This week, the Qahtani tribe of western Saudi Arabia has been welcoming entrants to its Mazayen al-Ibl competition, a parade of the "most beautiful camels" in the desolate desert region of Guwei'iyya, 120 km (75 miles) west of Riyadh.

"In Lebanon they have Miss Lebanon," jokes Walid, moderator of the competition's Web site. "Here we have Miss Camel."

While tremendous oil wealth has brought rapid modernisation to the desert state of Saudi Arabia, the camel remains celebrated as a symbol of the traditional nomadic lifestyle of Bedouin Arabs.

Throughout history camels have served multiple purposes as food, friend, transport and war machine. They were key to the Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa nearly 1,400 years ago that brought Islam to the world.

Camels are also big business in a country where strict Islamic laws and tribal customs would make it impossible for women to take part in their own beauty contest.

Delicate females or strapping males who attract the right attention during this week's show could sell for a million or more riyals. Sponsors have provided 10 million riyals (1.36 million pounds) for the contest, cash that also covers the 72 sports utility vehicles to be will be awarded as prizes.

"Bedouin Arabs are intimately connected to camels and they want to preserve this heritage. The importance of this competition is that it helps preserve the pure-breds," said Sheikh Omair, one of the tribe's leaders,

"We have more than 250 owners taking part and more than 1,500 camels," he said inside a huge tent where the final awards ceremony takes place.

Over at the camel pen, the contestants are getting restless as the desert wind howls and whips up swirls of sand in the hot afternoon sun.

Amid a large crowd of Bedouin who have gathered to watch, the head of the judging committee emerges to venture into an enclosure with some two dozen angry braying camels.

Camel-drivers sing songs of praise to their prized possessions as they try to calm the animals down.

"Beautiful, beautiful!" the judge mutters quietly to himself, inspecting the group. Finalists have been decorated with silver bands and body covers.

"The nose should be long and droop down, that's more beautiful," explains Sultan al-Qahtani, one of the organisers. "The ears should stand back, and the neck should be long. The hump should be high, but slightly to the back."

The camels are divided into four categories according to breed -- the black majaheem, white maghateer, dark brown shi'l and the sufur, which are beige with black shoulders. Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel.

Some females have harnesses strapped around their genitalia to thwart any efforts by the males to mount them. One repeat offender called Marjaa has been moved away.

"This one would fetch a million!" says Hamad al-Sudani, a camel-driver, admiring the heavy stud, or fahl.

Youtube from yesterday's camel beauty pageant in Saudi Arabia

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