Spread out at the foot of a vast plateau in the desert in Sinai, hundreds of excited Bedouins gathered to race their camels after a six-month break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shrouded in a vast sand cloud kicked up by the hump-backed beasts, more than 500 camels were loudly cheered on by their owners dressed in traditional jalabiyas and headdresses.
Camel racing is a popular traditional sport in many Arab countries, most notably in the Gulf region. In Egypt, Bedouins of the South Sinai desert have kept up the tradition.
However, race events have been suspended since March following a COVID-19 outbreak and orders only came down at the beginning of the month that they could resume last weekend.
The camels ran around a 2km track in the Tih Plateau, completing it in a matter of minutes as they were followed by spectators and owners riding in SUVs to get a close-up glimpse of the action.
The competition “is a training for the international race, which should take place in October in Sharm el-Sheikh,” Nuweiba Camel Club head Saleh al-Muzaini told reporters.
One group of camels after another, placed in different categories according to age and sex, made their debut on the dirt track lined by sand embankments on each side.
On their backs sat mechanical jockeys, which are lighter than human riders, wearing racing jerseys and brandishing whips.
In a different race, young boys mount the camels to complete a 10km course.
Among the audience was 32-year-old Mostapha Abu al-Fadl, a geologist at an oil company in Cairo, who came especially to watch.
“When I heard they were organizing the race again, I told my friends how crazy, how wonderful it is... We had to come and see,” he said.
To the Bedouins, the race is a way of keeping a traditional heritage alive.
“There was camel racing in the past, but we revived it” in recent years, said Sheikh Hassan of the Alegat tribe, which organizes the event. “Camels will not disappear for us. We can use them for centuries. If the camel goes away, the Bedouins will also go away.”
Camel races — held every two or three months — often attract large audiences of tourists, visitors and Bedouins to the middle of the desert.
Suspending the races caused heavy losses for the camel owners, who still had to pay for their animals’ training, food and health checkups.
Over the six months alone, the owners lost 10 million to 15 million Egyptian pounds (US$635,000 to US$952,000), Sheikh Hassan said.
For owner Soleiman Hamad, Saturday’s race ended on a high note as his animal came first in its category.
There is no prize money, but the winners carry off a prestigious trophy, which also helps boost their animal’s value.
For Hamad and others, camel racing represents a source of additional income, provided that they also have the means to train, feed and care for the animal.
“It’s costly, but it’s our passion,” he said.
Each camel costs up to 2,000 Egyptian pounds per month to feed.
A well-trained camel can sell for up to 2 million Egyptian pounds, Sheikh Hassan said.
Bedouin of South Sinai usually eye Gulf countries, where camel racing is a popular and lucrative activity.
Now they are hoping for precious support with a visit to the peninsula due next month by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, which could boost their business.
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