Two Bedouin friends
and their camels
Attayak Aouda on the left and Attayak Ali
Attayak Aouda has been very busy lately with his racing camels. He won't actually ride them in races himself, he is too heavy, he will put up one of his young nephews. The racing season doesn't begin again until the winter, but in the meantime he feeds them himself, grooms them, looks after any sores and exercises them in the desert. I decided to find out more and followed along when he went out one evening.
His favourite mount is a male racing camel named "El Deloua", which means, approximately, "The spoiled child". I quickly understood the reason for his name. I hadn't known that a racing camel is trained to rise and lunge forward as soon as his rider's weight touches the saddle. El Deloua takes this, perhaps, to extremes. Attayak barely had one leg over the saddle and could no more than have touched it, when the camel was on his feet and rushing forward. Attayak gave an acrobatic leap and twist in midair, which brought him into the saddle and he was reining the camel in within a couple of strides. My mouth might have hung open! Later the camel tried the same thing, this time leaving his rider behind, still on the ground. Attayak spoke severely to his mount, but I was interested to notice that there was no question of using the stick that every camel rider carries as a "navigational aid". (A tap on the left or the right shoulder of the camel to indicate direction). In slow motion, he demonstrated the technique of getting into the saddle :
He has placed all of his weight on the rein which he has pulled close to his left foot, turning the camel's head right around. Like this the camel cannot move to rise when he (carefully) moves the right leg over the camel's back. Then, cocking the right knee he sits on the saddle and the camel is free to rise as he draws the left leg up. This crosses the bent right leg to assume the proper position for riding. In the last photo the camel is up, but Attayak has pulled the rein right back to keep the animal still for the photo - you can see how El Deloua's head is turning up.
He looked round for his camels and we headed into the desert (me in a car). The camels, incidentally, are very similar in colour to the desert and the sandstone cliffs and it can be quite difficult for an unaccustomed eye to see them. He had one camel on a rein, the others were running free. "This one is a female camel (a "naga") that I bought not long ago from Saudi Arabia. If I let her loose, it won't take her an hour to get to the border and I'd have a terrible time getting her back again. She's too old really for racing, but she can have good children". The others followed along docilely, without his saying a word or indicating to them to follow.
"Why are they just following along like this?" I asked. "Are they following the female (the matriarch?) or the one you are riding?" (the alpha male?). "No," he said. "They are following me. A couple of them don't like me very much, but they still follow me whenever they can". Apparently for this group of camels Attayak Aouda is the "alpha male"!
When we stopped to make tea, El Deloua got impatient, and Attayak apologised. "I've got to let him run a bit or he will be impossible" he explained. Off they went! The camel charged past me, going hard. Until you have been there, it is difficult to understand just how very impressive it is, being close to a large and powerful animal running flat out.
Attayak Ali had joined us by this time, and wanted to try riding El Deloua. He came back after quite a short time. "This camel has to be shown all the time who is the boss! He never stops fighting me" he complained. "Me, I like to relax when I ride out, not to be fighting the camel all the time. Only a crazy guy would actually choose to ride this one". He gazed disparagingly at his best friend who grinned back at him, completely unimpressed, before heading for home at an extended trot, the ladies falling in behind obediently.
Typically, Attayak Ali's camels are less flamboyant. He has three of them, and is not interested in racing them, but is hoping to breed better ones. He leaves them with his father in the family black tent in the desert. "Don't you even use them for tourists?" I asked. Attayak Ali runs a number of camel trekking programmes, and renting in camels comes expensive. "I don't have the time to look after them myself, and I don't want to let just anybody do it" he said. "Some of the Bedouin here simply don't care! They leave the saddles on during the lunch break - even overnight sometimes. This rubs the camel's back, and a saddle sore takes a long time to heal. I prefer to hire somebody who brings his own camels, and like that he looks after them properly. I really feel sorry for some of the camels one sees around! It's not fair to treat them like that".
They agreed to come out together the next evening for a "photo session"! Attayak Ali would borrow a camel from his brother. "He's got a good naga, much better than that male of Attayak Aouda's!"
As they prepared to mount up, I made a stupid mistake. I moved in front of them to take a photo, completely forgetting how a racing camel lunges forward! They passed me, one on either side, with an almost audible whoosh! The riders were both laughing their silly heads off, so presumably it hadn't been dangerous, although I felt as if it had been! They departed at a smart trot, rapidly disappearing down the village street.
A girlfriend was going to drive me out in Attayak Ali's car and we hurried to get in - only to find that he had gone off with the key in his pocket! Recriminations could wait! We hastily scrambled to change cars and rushed after them. They appeared to have made an impression as they swept through the village which is more used to the pace of tourists on camels. "Which way did they go?" we yelled, not bothering to specify who. Women standing in doorways, boys playing football and men tinkering with cars, all laughed and waved towards the north and Wadi es Sid. We caught them up as they reached the sand, where they were now ambling along, chatting happily.
Usefully, Attayak Aouda had put on a white headress this evening, while Attayak Ali had a red one. This helps to identify them in the photos, but I am quite sure this was completely unintended.
We agreed that we would go ahead in the car and they would follow at a good pace. They started off, loping along, but proceedings were halted when Attayak Ali had to take a call on his cell phone. Ah, the hasards of modern Bedouin life!
After a pause at the far end of the valley, they decided to race back towards the village. "They'll go faster when they're on the way home" offered Attayak Aouda. However Attayak Ali, on a more sedate female and riding at least 10 kilos heavier than his friend was quickly left behind.
Almost immediately El Deloua decided he was racing against our car, and was determined to win. He did too: the terrain was much more suitable for him than for us. We were rushing along at 35 kilometers an hour, meeting grassy tufts all the way. My head was bumping against the roof every half minute, and I am frankly surprised that I managed to take any photo at all. As he got his nose well in front, Attayak Aouda, laughing happily, pulled him up and looked behind to see where everybody was.
It had been an impressive demonstration, just look at the way the camel is stretching out! I was no longer surprised that Attayak Aouda insisted on keeping him as a riding camel, in spite of his temperament and no matter the advice proffered by just about all of his friends.
As Attayak Ali caught us up and they started back towards the village at a reasonable pace, Attayak Ali remarked "Lord, I haven't done anything like for a long time".
Attayak Aouda surveyed him critically. "You still ride very well and it's a pity to get out of practice. Why don't you come out with me tomorrow?"
An expression of horror flashed over Attayak Ali's face, to be replaced by one of faint but definite interest. "I'm busy tomorrow!" he said firmly. "But perhaps another time...."
PS : El Deloua won the first camel race of the season at Dissieh in December 2006, in front of some 40 entries from Saudi Arabia!! Attayak Aouda was very pleased!
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Next : "The Bedouin of Wadi Rum"
See also "Camels and camel treking in Wadi Rum"
İRuth Caswell 2006