Age cannot wither them. The status of the camel may have faded in the modern age but their value to their owners is as enduring as ever, not to mention their beauty. Alvin Thomas reports.
The dusty roads that lead you to the outskirts of Barka may hardly qualify as a path to the grounds of a beauty pageant. But then again, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill supermodels with perfect skin and slender figures. These are the dwellers of the desert and today, they’re here to do just one thing: impress the judges.
Without further ado, the gates are thrown wide open for the six beautiful doe-eyed contestants who will be taking part in this round of the beauty pageant – better known around town as the Muzayna.
By now the crowd goes ballistic, shouting cheers and praises for their favourite four-legged lovelies. The camels, however, have nothing on the crowd that has gathered around the “maidhaan” (grounds), as they lightly canter before the judges almost in perfect sync with each other, and in tune to the loud traditional Arabic music that is blaring out from the voluminous speakers.
The tension, however, is very visible in the eyes of the camel owners and the trainers. After all, more than a year of training and preparation has gone into each of these camels. This anxiety is also a testament to the strong bond that exists between the owners and their “doyennes of the desert”.
Camel beauty contests have long been a part of traditional Bedouin festivals that have been held across various parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The beauty competition, which comes under the “Annual Festival of the National Camel Race Programme” is only a part of the entire festival.
Historically, however, Bedouins were known to pit their camels against one another to compete in front of a judging panel of camel experts in a bid to see who owned the prettiest camel.
Much of the excitement and enthusiasm remains the same today. As a matter of fact, people have come in from as far as Salalah and Buraimi to compete with their camels in today’s competition.
By now, the music has faded out and the announcer takes control of the microphone, asking the owners and trainers multiple questions about the camel, as well as giving the evincing audience details of the six camels that have now taken centre stage.
The camels – mostly females – are all sporting silver accessories and hump embellishments. However, “originality and natural beauty” are the qualities that the judges will look for in the camels.
And according to Qaiser Salem, from the Royal Camel Corps (RCC), the organiser of the annual event, there are more stringent rules to follow if an individual wants to enrol his camel in the beauty pageant.
“The parameters that we set are designed to make the competition as fair as possible for everyone,” explains Qaiser.
“Our intentions are to keep the camel as natural as we possibly can. We will not allow any form of hybrid breeds in the competitions. We will also check to see if there are any forms of fur-dyeing and tattooing on the camel’s body.
“Furthermore, we have set age limits for each of the beauty contest. So the participating camel must fall within that age group if it wants to enter the competition grounds,” he tells Y.
The ages of camels are verified by checking the teeth. The age of the camels can be estimated by the number of teeth and the wear on them. For example, a camel that is 11 years old will have worn out central and second incisors. Moreover, there will also be a separation between the second and third incisor.
Qaiser goes on to explain that the camels have to be pure-bred and Omani. Both male and female camels can participate but the owners are made to swear under oath of the authenticity of their camel’s origins.
“If you ask any Omani, he or she will tell you how much they love camels. The reason for that is camels have been with us and our ancestors for centuries. I believe that it is because of them that we were able to traverse the deserts and the treacherous lands centuries ago,” Qaiser says.
The judging criteria is fairly complex. Once the camel meets all the aforementioned, the judges then crack open their scoresheets to pin-point each and every feature of the camel.
A well-propotioned body and face, a huge hump, a long gharib (the distance between the hump and neck), a long body, firm ears, broad cheeks, straight neck, long and slender legs and a long body are a few features that the judges look for in a camel before rating it.
Even the size of its toe clefts are taken into account. Qaiser adds that the bigger the camel, the more the chances it has of winning. Apart from that, body strength and a good posture are also factors, which will affect the camel’s chances of climbing onto the winner’s podium.
But Fahd, a camel owner and aficionado who is a spectator in today’s competition says: “The colour of the camel is extremely important.”
Qaiser clarifies by saying: “One thing the judges look for in a camel is the colour. In Oman, camels usually come in a very light shade. It is because the shade of the camel changes according to the weather and change in the climate.
“During the summer months, the coats of the camels become lighter. It is a natural process, and the camel does this to feel cooler during the summer months,” explains Qaiser.
But one judge tells Y his list of most desirable attributes in a camel: “The size of the bones, the foot, the height of the camel and the neck is what I look at.”
It doesn’t take us long to realise that it’s a job he takes seriously, as he looks at another camel – his last tally for the day.
By now, the other judges have also drawn up the final scores and are walking up to the stage to announce the winners.
The music is back on and is in full-blast. This time around, even the announcer jumps in to cheer with the crowds, creating an almost festival-like atmosphere.
A few of the youngsters have also started dancing to the tunes. But as soon as the judges begin tallying up their final scores, the crowd goes quiet in anticipation of the winner’s announcement.
Without much ado, the judges announce that the winner of this round of the beauty pageant is a camel named Farhat al Khaleej – making this her seventh victory in beauty pageants. Her owner, who hails from Khaboura, soon receives the keys to a spanking-new Toyota pick-up truck – the prize for the winner.
Participants are also allowed to sell their camels to the public. The winning camel with the highest bid was “Tasira”, which was sold for a whopping RO15,000.
“Camels that take part in beauty contests usually go around this price bracket. And a number of participants are also keeping a keen eye on these camels as a number of them are interested to purchase camels. However, most of them prefer going for race-bred camels,” says Qaiser.
“A race-bred camel can go for anywhere between RO100,000 and 300,000, which is more than many cars of today,” he says, adding that these prices are still reasonable when compared with the cost of camels from Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, Nasser al Hajri, a wealthy Saudi oil contractor and devoted collector of animals, reportedly paid a record USD2.5 million (RO960,000) for a beautiful four-year-old camel called Gaooda.
Qaiser also tells us that more than 70 camels were registered in the camel beauty competition and that the prestigious six-day contest is divided into six different age categories.
There will also be camel racing, milking and performance-based competitions, which are expected to conclude by March.
Abdullah, the owner of three camels and a participant in the beauty competition says: “Today, we all drive SUVs. We do not require the services of the camel anymore. And for me that is wrong because I saw my father ride a camel when I was a little boy. If there was no camel, there was no trip to the market, and there would be no food for us that night.
“So when people ask me why I spend so much money on them, I tell them that these are not just animals but rather a part of our culture.
“They were our lifeline. And it is my duty to preserve and glorify the ancient Arabian culture of herding camels,” he says.
Qaiser, who has also helped to translate much of my interviews, goes on to say: “The Annual Festival of the National Camel Race Programme is organised so that Omanis can showcase their love for the animal.
“And as we progress towards a modern future, we must keep in mind our roots. And our roots can be attributed to this beautiful mammal.”