Qatar camel race: What an experience!

A camel noseYesterday was a unique day. We, along with Amal, our partner-in-crime, and friend Ranjit headed to a Qatar camel race in al-Shahnniya, some 40 km outside Doha. What we saw and experienced there was quite memorable.

When we first arrived at the racing complex, we were a bit early so we wandered about and ran into some of the camel jockeys. I was shocked to see how young and tiny they were. Mostly they were Sudanese and between maybe 7-10 years old. We talked with them and took some pictures. But then things started getting tense. Some organizers or security for the facility approached us and asked us — quite angrily — not to talk with the jockeys or take pictures of them. They were very tense and kept following us around to make sure we didn’t come near the jockeys.

My analysis is that since Qatar recently banned camel jockeys and is now working on robots to replace the young kids (now being copied in the UAE), officials are feeling uneasy about giving the kids any extensive exposure, especially this being their last season. It might reflect badly on the Gulf state of Qatar since it has now been established that the use of child camel jockeys is really a form of child abuse.

Some jockeys and an outfitterAfter the encounter with the officials, we drove around and found ourselves in a huge camel market. I have to confess, I had never seen so many camels in one place in my life. Jeff and Ranjit, the two shutterbugs of the group, immediately embarked on taking pictures while Amal and myself busied ourselves talking with the vendors and asking them about the camels and how much they cost. Man, camels are expensive!

Neck and neckAmal also rode a camel for the first time in her life! I was shocked to know that she had never done it before. Apparently, there are no camels in Lebanon! Anyway, we headed back to the racetrack and caught the fourth round of the race. It was so surreal. People here follow the race by driving their SUV’s around the outside of the 2-km long track beeping and hollering. We did the same. All packed into Rajnit’s SUV, we chased those racing camels. We did that for the following rounds as well and believe me when I tell you, it was exhilarating. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

There were many young men -– mostly from neighboring gulf countries — following the race that were so passionate about what was going on. I even saw a Qatari guy, who I assumed was an owner of one of the racing camels, talking to his jockey via walkie-talky, coaching him I guess.

I’m so glad we got to see this while we are still here. It was a fascinating experience. I wonder if the passion among the young men that own and watch the races will still be there when the camel jockeys are replaced by robots, which will supposedly be implemented next year. [More pictures coming in a photo album]

27 Comments

  1. nomadica April 13, 2005 at 11:14 am

    It’s so sad looking at the picture of those little boys and seeing how young they really are. I really don’t understand how people can enjoy a sport so much when the little children forcibly engaged in it are suffering so much. I’m glad they are finally doing something about replacing these child jockeys. This has been going on for so long, and I’m surprised more noise hasn’t been made about it.

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  2. Arash April 13, 2005 at 11:28 am

    They’ll be using kids the next year too, don’t buy into the hype.

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  3. Jeff April 13, 2005 at 11:29 am

    We all felt the same. The kids that we met were very nice, though, making the problem yet more tangible. The whole situation is a bit sticky. I believe they are paid little but the position is one of pride for their family. I believe the family is provided housing, perhaps food as well and, naturally, they come from very poor regions. So there is pressure on these little kids besides the dangers.
    What dangers? Falling off! The camels are tall and they get around that track. Any jockey that falls off their mount risks injury. But these are small children and they are much higher than a horse so that danger is multiplied.
    All that said, it was tremendously exhilarating to watch. No kids were injured that we saw and there was a feeling of real heady excitement there. Big prizes are on offer: cars, money, etc. There was a heavy Omani contingent, as well as flags from all over the GCC and Tunisia (I think).
    Looking at the picture of the real robot in the UAE on the camel, I wonder too if it’ll generate the same excitement. Of course the kids are a bit akin to robots, propped up there with the owner riding alongside sending commands to them via radio. So switching to a remote controlled robot won’t be that much of a change from the owner’s side. And obviously it removes the abuse element and opens things up to be fun without the guilt.
    This is the last season in Qatar, we understand, for live jockeys. The UAE is there now. I’m not sure how the rest of the Gulf is implementing the change or IF they are.

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  4. nomadica April 13, 2005 at 11:42 am

    I don’t think that in all cases the families of the children benefit that much. In many cases these little children are kidnapped from their homes and smuggled into the Gulf. I saw a documentary last year on HBO’s Real Sports that showed shocking footage of the conditions that the young boys were kept in, in the UAE. There were even allegations of rape and physical abuse.
    Here’s a link to more about this issue, and also a mention of the HBO documentary that was aired last year:
    http://tinyurl.com/5bf9n/

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  5. iyas April 13, 2005 at 11:50 am

    Ahh…this is so much like home, it reminds me of my white camel which I got for my Tawjihi graduation…
    But on the serious side, it is not injuries alone that one is worried about. For one, I don’t think they have access to good education. The jockeys are “imported” from poor area or countries. I do not intend to start a whole discussion that I may not be able to follow but this practice is another form of slavery and I feel that the “gulf” mentality condones slavery. Just look at that retarded Saudi show “Tash ma tash”, it makes me sick all those jokes they crack about migrant workers but at the same time they portray what happens in 90%+ of the households.

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  6. hana April 13, 2005 at 11:54 am

    sweeeettt…

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  7. Sterling April 13, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    Why not employ small adults as jockeys, as in horse racing? Would it too greatly reduce the speed of the camel?

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  8. nomadica April 13, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    I think the key is to keep the jockey as light as possible? Even the little boys that are currently used are fed miserable diets to keep them from gaining weight.

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  9. praktike April 13, 2005 at 1:43 pm

    Is there gambling?

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  10. Jeff April 13, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    I don’t think so. We didn’t see any and it is regarded as against Islamic practice. Most all involved are part of teams, not so much just plain spectators. In fact, there is a grandstand but it was completely empty. We were right there track side.
    Those involved are very interested in the prizes, which included a full maybe 40-50 SUVs, ranging from little Toyota full-cabs to full size Landcruisers and the top prize of a BMW X5. I think there is also a prize from the Emir himself. The prizes and the haram nature of gambling keep the focus on the show. The races last a week.

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  11. Arash April 13, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    I don’t think so. We didn’t see any and it is regarded as against Islamic practice. Most all involved are part of teams, not so much just plain spectators. In fact, there is a grandstand, but it was completely empty. We were right there track side.

    Since I’m in a theological mode today I should let you know that not all gambling is haram. They allow bets for horseracing in Iran. They say it was one of the three sports that Muahmmad liked (along with swimming, and archery). I don’t see the logic either btw.

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  12. chanad April 13, 2005 at 5:48 pm

    God I hope that the UAE and Qatar are serious about replacing these kids with robots. This is probably the worst example of expat abuse in the Gulf. I really hope things will change soon.

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  13. dervish April 13, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    MashAllah, what a great experience! The races I have seen have been at dawn, but I haven’t seen any of the “big” ones, are they racing in the afternoon now?
    I have heard tales of kidnapping regarding the jockeys too, but only from the American press (the same folks who said that Saddam had WMD’s and they knew exactly what and where they were).
    The same sources claim the kids are Bengali and Indian. The kids I have seen are either Sudani, Somali, or Bedu. They come in groups I am told, from the same villages. Camel racing and training runs in families. They do get an education, the school is on the ground floor of the stadium, and clearly marked. Check it out during the day and see if they aren’t there.
    Maybe some claims by the Qataris are not true, I don’t know, but the evidence on the ground suggests that the Qatari version is closer to the truth than what the Americans say. I am not defending the practice by any means, I am glad to see it stop, but it’s funny that every chance the west gets they slander Arabia with exaggerations and baseless allegations. I would need to see proof of kidnapping before I believed it.

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  14. Anonymous April 13, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    Well, a very corrupted man came up with this particular one.

    Another favorite is that Muhammad didn’t obtain numerous wives out of lust, but out of political necessity!

    That was extremely offensive. When debating relgion in a civilized and educated manner, you should refrain from making derogatory remarks about someone’s Prophet. Not only does it detract from your credibility, but before making such distasteful remarks you should ponder how it would feel if the tables were turned- that is, someone of a faith that didn’t revere Christ made statements that Christ was corrupt.

    Also, Natasha (and Jeff), I wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your journal. I am a 25 year old American woman (of South Asian descent) residing in Atlanta, Georgia. I stumbled across your wedding webpage a year ago and was subsequently hooked onto reading your journal. Absolutely beautiful wedding by the way!

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  15. Jeff April 13, 2005 at 7:02 pm

    We agree with your sentiment and thank you for your praise. We hope you’ll continue to make us a regular read 🙂
    And Dervish, I’m sort of with you on this. As the wife remarked in another post about the quick nature of the West to jump on all things “Without My Daughter,” I wonder if the same might go on here. I’m not condoning the action either, by no means actually.
    But there is a tendancy to get all high and mighty on these tradtions, right or wrong, and throw down judgments that really need a bit of cultural sensitivity. I’m of the opinion that any real serious critique should ideally come from a local, working towards the idea that change is best worked from the inside out. Mandates from on high are rarely accepted with real heart.
    And in the case of Qatar, they are actually doing something about this, recognizing the problem. The UAE was the first to implement the robots, but it was Qatar’s initiative and design.

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  16. Arash April 13, 2005 at 7:30 pm

    how it would feel if … someone of a faith that didn’t revere Christ made statements that Christ was corrupt.

    I’d look into it to see if it was true. I am not a Christian btw, not really dogmatic about people either. I don’t know how you can think objectively about someone you hold holy and untouchable.

    To keep on topic, here’s a piece about camels: Camel journeys

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  17. Linda April 13, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Everyone knows how i feel about child slave labor from the whole union/strabucks discussion so you can only imagine how i feel about this. I do not even want to get started.
    Im surprised as well your firend has not ridden a camel. Im in L.A. and i have rode a camel before. Look forward to seeing the rest of the pics.

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  18. kinzi April 14, 2005 at 6:58 am

    (I’m going to comment onthe last article, hope thats ok!)
    Nas, the thing that still troubles me is that those verses are still present, and if your take on ‘daraba’ is so they have obviously been REALLy stretched to accomodate what is practiced in the Islamic world.
    (doorbell rang, more late)
    [This thread transferred back into topic. Please continue discussion there. ~Admin]

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  19. Admin April 14, 2005 at 8:14 am

    The conversation was spiraling downward with users assuming identities and generally getting ugly with one another so comments were closed for a bit to let things cool off. I’ll delete your request above, then move your second comment into that post, while opening things up again. Although we reserve the right to shut things down if it continues to be uncivil.

    Reply
  20. Nurhan April 14, 2005 at 9:29 am

    !!!! i love that picture of the camel, it is so awesome!!!
    glad u had fun!

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  21. Chapati Mystery April 14, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    Camel Fodder

    Following Qatar’s lead, UAE has decided to replace kidnapped South Asian children with robots as jockeys in the most popular camel races. Camel racing is as old as the two oldest bedouins with camels and a long stretch of desert turf. In the Roman acco…

    Reply
  22. Chan'ad April 14, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    I just wanted to respond to dervish and Jeff on this issue of Western critiques of child jockeys in the Gulf. Criticism has not only been coming from the West, but from other places also. One of the most active groups that has been working to help the situation is a foundation set up by Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney (whom I trust a great deal).
    Burney made a documentary about the issue using hidden camera footage, which was then broadcast in the US on HBO. Since then he has been working with the UAE leadership to issue a ban on underage jockeys (under 15 years I think), and has also been allowed to set up the first ever rehabilitation centre for the underage jockeys in the UAE (read the BBC report about it here).
    Anyhows, my point is that the main source of criticism is not coming from the West. Ansar Burney has been actively working with the local leadership to change the situation.
    Of course, there will be people in the West and elsewhere who will want to use this issue as evidence of how uncivilized those Bedus/Arabs/Muslims/etc are… but that should not be an excuse for the rest of us to ignore the real issue at hand and just proclaim it as mere Western propaganda.
    Anyways, I do hope that the governments are serious about change.

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  23. Jeff April 14, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    Of course it isn’t. We are on the same track here. Often is the case, however, that when issues such as this are “discovered” by the outside the case built upon them rises up straight into “uncivilized” stature, often at a dizzying pace. It’s always best when these things are examined and worked upon from the inside. That said, outside pressure is often necessary as well. But it’s always best that it comes from those with cultural sensitivities. All too often it fall into the 24-hours news cycle and becomes yet another example of that “mysterious, dangerous” Bedu/Arab/Muslim way. I hate to see that happen time and again. It’s difficult for real change to happen when movements to highlight the need are capitalized on by those with ulterior motives. Many are working within these communities to bring about change but often that work becomes a pawn in a bigger game: see ‘honor crime,’ see ‘not without my daughter’ and see ‘child camel jockeys’ These are all issues that require difficult work and likely need some assistance from the outside. But as is proving the case with all three, sometimes it’s just used as an example of the freak show.
    To suggest that the media spotlight be dimmed is not to suggest that there is no problem, nor that nothing should be done about it. It’s said because to do so might remove financial and God know whatever other nefarious motives of some to highlight it. It likely will help to reduce the pressure on those trying to work within traditions that don’t change quickly. Even before the Iraq war, push for such change was met with comments that the motives of those from within were being unduly influenced from by the outside. Since the war, it’s only worse, particularly after GWB’s rants. Some pressure sure, but with moderation and cultural sensitivity. I fear that those latter two caveats are fast becoming extinct in our news-hungry world. Too often, viewers/readers/consumers are rubber-necking at the strange freakish (at least to them) nature of ‘the other.’
    Chan’ad I’m certain some of those observing the Shi’a rituals you so well documented were not doing out of cultural edification but for to augment their own beliefs. And that’s likely against one of the reasons you documented it: to break down barriers. You do it to educate. Others grab it, make it their own to demean the action. It’s a tricky wicket when endeavoring to explore this world and celebrate its diversity while there are those waiting in the wings doing their utmost to pervert it.

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  24. amal April 15, 2005 at 1:51 pm

    It was a really fun day! I didn’t want to go because I knew the jockeys were basically slaves but Natasha insisted. I’m glad she insisted 🙂

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  25. Paul August 18, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    Only and only because of the heactic and practical great efforts of Mr Ansar Burney (http://www.ansarburney.org ) The UAE and Qatar banned the use of underage children as jockeys.
    Widely known as human rights ‘Saint’ Ansar Burney is become a hero in this field to save thousands of children from slavery.
    The Government of the United States of America on 3rd of June 2005 has already declared Mr Ansar Burney as International ‘HERO’.

    Reply
  26. Mahesh December 9, 2006 at 5:24 am

    UAE and QATAR need to be nuked like Iraq.

    Reply
  27. Simil November 27, 2007 at 8:58 am

    stolen kids on camelz = Lulz.

    Reply

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