Have you ever had an experience so glorious that you relive it almost every day?
Just before Christmas of 2010, my boyfriend Dave and I went to the UAE along with my dear friend the amazing designer Tucker Robbins – you can read about how I met Tucker here, and about our Arabian celebrity friend and host Hussain Al Amry here. When Tucker was urging me to make a reservation to join him in the UAE, he listed a multitude of attractions: “There might be a date palm festival”, “His brother is the Minister of Culture who is very focused on the development of native craft in the UAE”, “They’re building everywhere! An arm of the Louvre!” etc. etc. There were a million reasons why I shouldn’t go. “Tucker, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but business in the past two years has SUCKED” was the main one. *
However, when Tucker announced that a “Camel Beauty Contest” (The Al Dhafra festival) was being held in the desert during his stay, a turning point occurred. A camel beauty contest, seriously? New Ravenna might be going to hell in a hand-basket, but how in the world could I miss that?
My boyfriend Dave and I bought tickets, were met at the airport by Tucker and Hussain in his crazy white Mercedes, and within an hour we were in someone’s front yard, sitting on a rug on the sidewalk, with imperious falcons resting on little perches scattered around the yard:
During the next few days we were shown shown all the sights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which is about an hour and a half by car from Abu Dhabi), then our gallant host Hussain drove us, at 247 kph (I’m not kidding), south into the desert. First stop, the oasis of Liwa, where his boss, H.E. Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, the Minister of Culture and Heritage, was raised.
Abu (brother) Khalaf often refers to himself as a “simple Bedouin boy” (which is the equivalent of Warren Buffet saying “I’m just a simple country boy”). Liwa is just north of what is commonly known as the “empty quarter”–a swath of desert in eastern Saudi Arabia that is…completely empty.
Apricot colored sand dunes stretch for hundreds of miles, south and east to Oman and Yemen just like in the movies. In fact, when describing his childhood Abu Khalaf likes to tell about the time when he was 14 and took his father’s jeep and drove across the empty quarter to Oman–and back–all the while neglecting to inform his parents of his plans.After seeing the desert through which he drove first hand, all I can say is that he should be happy that I was not his mother.
In any case, fast forward a few years and now, in another chapter of the “everyone thought we were crazy (crazy like a fox)” saga, visionary Abu Khalaf founded the Al Dhafra festival outside of his old stomping–I mean Four-Wheeling–grounds in Liwa. The goal was to celebrate and perpetuate the Bedouin culture and heritage, much of which is centered around camels. The first year, 20,000 camels showed up. Not being ones to ignore a good sign, they then planned and built a four star hotel on the grounds in eight months.
Basically, our good-looking hosts were the Arabian versions of George Clooney (Abu Khalaf) and Brad Pitt (Abu Hussain)–it seemed we always had an entourage, everyone knew them and wanted to speak with them, and we felt like celebrities ourselves.
Bedouin encampments dot the horizon for miles around, but the main attractions are the 30,000 camels that arrive from all over the Middle East for the ” beauty contest”. Some of these camels are worth millions, will win millions, and you can get up close and personal with them on “Million Street”–the road on which all the buying and selling is occurring.
Other activities at the festival are: shopping at 180 souks selling Bedouin products, falconry demonstrations, date packaging contests, camel racing, and camel milking contests. Where to stay? We camped in tents along with our hosts, but check out the four-star hotel on the grounds, or this five star hotel (heavenly) about an hour away.
The camel races are incredible! The owners follow alongside the racing camels in their SUV’s and talk to them through radio devices. When camels need prodding, they use a radio-controlled whip attached to the little doll/rider on their backs. This is a very young camel–still too small to be ridden by a real human.
CNN did a wonderful short video on the camel beauty contest which has been uploaded to Youtube here, and word on the street is that a 3-D documentary is now being made about the festival–click here for details. Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if Abu Khalaf was involved…
*(Full disclosure: New Ravenna was and is fine–in fact, bookings are now near or exceeding pre-recession levels (thank GOD). But if you are a fellow business owner, you know how difficult it is to tear yourself away even when things are dandy. I mean, the sky might fall while we’re gone, right? It’s tough.)
Exmore, Virginia, United States
New Ravenna Mosaics founder and Creative Director, Owner, Sara Baldwin Design, Bass guitar player, Envisioner, Appreciator of the Sublime and Ridiculous.