Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

CAMEL RACES DUBAI STYLE

What has 96 legs, 24 humps, uses electronic robots to increase speed and is chased by a pack of wild SUVs??

Camel Racing

This intriguing sport has eluded Roger and I for two years so when good friend, fellow blogger and ace photographer Jani Deidam announced she is in possession of a schedule for the Dubai Camel Races we say,  “Let’s go!”

“Oh dear, the race season is almost over. This schedule says that there is only one more day of racing,” Jani informs me after perusing the schedule, which by the way is written in Arabic.

We have two danger points here . . .  Jani and my Arabic is a “NOT” and a schedule in Dubai is like everything else in Dubai – ‘not exactly.’

Two years ago, when we moved to Dubai, one of the first things we saw on Dubai television was camel races. You can't possibly imagine the chaos - camels flying down race track with robots on their backs, massive SUVs racing alongside them honking their horns with passengers hanging out the window franticly working their remote controls to make the robots’ “crop” urge the camel to go faster. 


“My day will be complete if I can find a way to ride in one of the SUVs.” 

We leave the skyscraper splendor of Dubai proper and head towards the unrestrained desert. The race track is just beyond the Sevens Rugby Stadium on E66 (Dubai-Al Ain Road) driving towards the Al Ain oasis.  As we pass the stadium we can see a race track and take the first (unmarked) turn after the rugby stadium. The grandstand comes into view- the EMPTY grandstand. Continuing around the corner we come to the grandstand entrance and parking lot – the EMPTY parking lot.  

Not to be done in, Jani directs her husband to drive over to the men on the side of the road holding a camel. With an expertise learned from a year of surviving in Dubai, she elicits that the races are "over there down the road a bit.”

Not deterred by the obviously empty stadium, we head down the road until we find a group of men hanging around a segment of the racing track.

Jani's husband John and I go over to see what we can find out about the races. Not too much English spoken here but the men do give us a nod when asked, “Are there camel races here today?”

These camel handlers’ only for payment for this information is a request to have their pictures taken after which they eagerly motion to see the images.

Feeling we need more ‘intel’ Jani and I try again focusing this time on the guys in yellow "official looking" vests. We do a little bit better - there will be 20 races this afternoon and we are at the finish line. The starting line is down the road where all those SUVs are gathering.

I ponder this a bit and walk further on down the track where two guys with a camera are set up on the other side of the track next to a white line painted across the track.

Ali & Katie
"As-salaam ‘alaykum," I try my Arabic on them.


" Wa ‘alaykum salaam" one gentleman replies.

"Come, come across the track," he beckons me.

Looking to make sure no camels are stampeding my way, I duck under the guard rail and sprint across the dirt track. Well, sprint may be a bit of an exaggeration as I am wearing a body brace required after my back surgery. Amazing the things you can do when you are determined!

As luck would have it, Ali speaks impeccable English and I am finally confident I have the story. There are indeed 20 races today on this "short" track. We are indeed at the finish line and the start is up where the SUVs are amassing. They are filming the finish to ensure the winner is correctly identified.

"Is this where the SUVs race alongside the camels?" I inquire indicating the pavement running along both sides of the race track.

"Yes" Ali replies. "The inside track is for the Sheiks and Princes; the outside track is for everyone else."

“Good, I am a Queen so can I drive on the inside track?” I inquire with a gracious royal smile.

“I am sure you are the Queen in your house as I am the Prince in my house. But, no you can’t drive on the inside track. You have to use the outside tracks,” he delicately informs me. I love the gracrious way Arabs say no!

Yikes! Cameras are rolling and here comes the first race.

Frantic camels running down the track wide-eyed are looking a little spooked. And, right next to the track on both sides, SUVs are racing alongside with horns blowing. It is a free for all. It looks like the safest place might be inside the track with the camels.

The cameraman gets the finish-line shot.

It takes no time at all to surmise; I do not want to drive our precious SUV in that mayhem and prudently figure out the better and safer place to watch a race is riding in someone else’s’ SUV.

"Do you think someone would let me ride in their car?" I ask sheepishly. "I do not think I am a good enough driver to race with the other SUVs."

Ali chuckles and says, “Yes, just ask anyone and they will give you a ride.” Seeing my hesitation he adds, "Ask the bus. They will take you.”

The bus is the other half of the race crew with a cameraman dangerously perched on top filming the race and the race announcer riding shot gun enthusiastically reporting the progress of the race over loud speakers. This guy could get a job at Churchill Downs any day! Of course, it is all in Arabic so we can’t understand what he is saying.

“Shurkran and ma’a as-salaama,” I give my thanks and goodbye to Ali and move on down to the starting line.

First I look in the ‘back lot.

It is a tangled scene of camels, handlers and owners awaiting their turn to show their racing stuff. There are large camels with smaller ones tethered to them all dressed in bright colored blankets or racing silks with some of the smaller camels wearing ‘socks’ over their mouths and robots on their backs. 

Up at the starting line there is more activity as camels are led in sets of 4 to be positioned again the starting gate. A total of 24 camels participate in each race. The starting gate is a metal and canvas retractable screen with an opening for the camel’s lead ropes to be secured on the outside. At the appropriate moment, a retractable cable raises the screen and ‘they are off!’

Roger and I watch few races with our friends and then I summon my nerve to cross over to the other side of the track to see if I can find a ride in the ‘Shekih’s SUV lane.”

“Roger, I am going to see if I can hitch a ride in a SUV for a couple of the races.”

“Are you sure you can do that?” he asks apprehensively.

His concern is for my physical safety as well as a cultural concern since the only women at today’s races are in our stalwart band. This is not a place women frequent.

Once on the other side of the track, I watch the continual dance of the SUVs speeding off after the racing camels only to circle back and get in position for the next race. Finally I get enough nerve to pantomime a request for a ride. A few of the guys give me a wave and a smile but no one offers me a ride. I settle on the bus whose occupants eagerly invite me along.

I quickly scramble into the last seat of the bus. Next to me is Mohammed, an engaging young man dressed in traditional Emirati style of a white khandoura (long white robe), a red and white gutra (headscarf) held with a igal (black cord - which incidentally in olden days was used to cobble ones camel) . Thank goodness he has good English skills. He fills me in on more race details. I delight in this bird’s eye view of the races.

And we are off!

The bus driver speeds down the road in front of a massive procession of speeding SUV, the camera man is deftly perched on top of the bus filming the race, the announcer is in front of me enthusiastically reporting the race, the camels are wildly racing alongside of us, and I have my camera clicking away.

Wow what a ride.  

Mohammed tells me that this is a very short race for one and two year olds and for most of the camels it is their first racing experience. Hence, the young camel’s bewildered look. This also explains the smaller camels tethered next to the bigger one – children tethered to their mothers who are also racers.  I guess the socks over the mouths of the young camels is so they can't suckle before the race.

There is no pari-mutuel betting system as wagering is prohibited by the Islam faith, so the camels race for the prestige and the prize money put up by the government or important sheiks.

This was a remarkable adventure. One I highly recommend to anyone visiting the UAE during the October to April race season. There are 14 major camel racing tracks spread around the UAE. My research reveals that The Kings Cup, held in Dubai at the end of the season, is the biggest race of all.

HELP! I can’t find any information on when the Kings Cup is held. If anyone knows, please tell me as Roger and I want to go!  Leave a comment on the blog I check them daily.


THE DUBAI CAMEL CHASERS


Postscripts . . .
Front l. to r. Roger, Katie, Linda Hoagland, Inger Evans, 
Jack Whitehead, rear: Sue Taytallyay, Morris Hoagland, 
John Diedam, August and Jeff Evans
The Dubai Camel Chasers . . . Joining us on this expedition are Canadian Sue and her Hungarian husband Peter Tatrallyay, Americans Inger and Jeff Evans and their son August,  Jack and Karen Whiteside, and Linda and Morris Hoagland.  


Not in the picture are Jani Diedam and Karen Whiteside . . .where are you two? Only one of you could be taking the photo!

The importance of racing camels’ lineage . . . Like prized thoroughbred race horses, racing camels can cost millions of dirhams (3.67 dhs to $1). “It is said that every Bedouin can recite the genealogy of his camels for several generations with camels being named for their forefathers. Sometimes exceptional racers become a pedigree of their own. Jaber was so famous for his progeny that he is known around racetracks as ‘Jaber the laboratory.’

A camel’s speed is considered a divine gift that cannot be refused to others and so no studding fee is charged. Many racing camels’ owners travel many miles camping in the desert for weeks next to the home of a favorite female racing camel’s abode so as to have their camels impregnated. However, females are only allowed to mate with one male per season so there is no question as to paternity.” The National Feb. 7, 2011, Anna Zacharias  


Camel jockeys  . . . Prior to 2001 small children from South Asian countries were used as jockeys because of their light-weight. In 2002, answering the alarm raced by advocates against human trafficking, the UAE was the first country to ban the use of children under the age of 15.  This ban was not actively enforced until 2005.  Today, radio controlled robots are used hence the need for SUVs. On our excursion I learned that there is a resurgence of the use of Emirati jockeys. I would love to see some of those races.

9 comments:

  1. I should start betting on camel races. I couldn't do worse than when I bet on horses.

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  2. Wouldn't recommend you placing bets in Dubai! Emiratis take their faith very seriously and wagering is not permitted according to the Qu'ran - it could get you on trouble! Stick to the ponies!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
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    ReplyDelete
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