The recent ‘Camel Beauty Contest’ in Abu Dhabi has been reported widely around the world and written about as something bizarre and quirky. Unfortunately, the idea of a ‘beauty contest’ has overshadowed the importance of the camel to the Emirati and Arab heritage.
Nowhere has the love between Arabs and camels been better expressed than by William Thesiger in his book, Arabian Sands. Here are some excerpts from his incredible journey through the Arabian Desert in the late 1940s:
“To Arabs, camels are beautiful, and they derive as great a pleasure from looking at a good camel as some Englishmen get from looking at a good horse.” (p77)
Writing of the tracking skills of the Bedu [Bedouin] Thesiger says:
“Here every man knew the individual tracks of his own camels and some of them could remember the tracks of nearly every camel they had seen. They could tell at a glance from the depths of the footprints whether a camel was ridden or free, and whether it was in calf. By studying strange tracks they could tell the area from which the camel came. Camels from The Sands [The Empty Quarter], for instance, have soft soles to their feet, marked with tattered strips of loose skin, whereas if they come from the gravel plains their feet are polished smooth. Bedu could tell the tribe to which a camel belonged, for the different tribes have different breeds of camels, all of which can be distinguished by their tracks.
From looking at their droppings they [the Bedu] could deduce where a camel had been grazing, and they could certainly tell when it had last been watered, and from their knowledge of the country they could probably tell where.” (p61-62)
“Camel’s milk is their food and drink. As long as there is plenty of milk the Bedu want nothing more.” (p115)
Camel Milk Hospitality
“Our hosts brought us [camel] milk. We blew the froth aside and drank deep; they urged us to drink more, saying, ‘You will find no milk in the sands ahead of you. Drink—drink. You are our guests. God brought you here—drink.’ I drank again, knowing even as I did so that they would go hungry and thirsty that night, for they had nothing else, no other food and no water.” (p122)
Source: Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands (First published London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd., 1959. The edition from which these excerpts have been quoted is published in Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 1994, 2006).
A review of this book is posted at Reviewing Books and Movies.
A superb web gallery of photographs taken by Wilfred Thesiger can be found at:
Another story on ‘the Camel Contest’ has been posted on the Experiencing the Emirates web site.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: ‘Bedu at Raudha Tinha, Saudi Arabia, 1945’ by Wilfred Thesiger. This is a sample of the photographs at the Thesiger Galleries.
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