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In all beauty pageants what one wears is most important. Beauty contestants usually get decked out in flowing evening gowns and skimpy swim suits. But camel beauty contestant dress in dazzling bling-bling called hatat. The hatat is artfully draped over the hump and around the neck and face like precious jewels. Actually, some are jewelry as they are made with real gold and semi-precious stones
Roger and I were at the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, held just past Madinat Zayed in the desert off Abu Dhabi Island. Among the many events at this two-week celebration in late December are camel beauty contests. It is astounding that more than 25,000 camels come from neighboring Gulf countries to compete. And it is even more astounding that in the offering is AED 66,000,000+ ($1,798,365) in prizes for the various contests held during the festival. All this is enticing, but I am most intrigued with the camel bling-bling – a huge business here.
Vendors set up their own compound next to the festival’s traditional souq to sell their dazzling creations. Roger and I are fortunate to find Umm Khalid known in Saudi Arabia as “Queen of the Bling-Bling.” She was the first to use real gold and semi-precious stones. I have been dying to meet her ever since I read an article about her last year in The National.
The shop of Umm Khalid Khalid, the “Queen of Camel Bling-Bling.”
Umm Khalid’s shop is actually a container, like what an 18-wheeler pulls. It has a carpeted terrace in front with her creations dangling from wood poles undulating in the strong wind causing glittering sparkles to cascade along the walls. The inside is completely covered - floor, walls and ceiling - in red and cream carpets emblazoned with the Saudi emblem of palm trees and crossed swords. Hanging on every hook are more glittering camel decorations.
As with fashions, hatat styles change each year necessitating customers’ return to get the latest style. Today, Umm Khalid is holding court sitting on floor cushions Bedu style wearing a black velvet abaya (gown), a black hijab (head scarf), a niqab (face mask) with a red scarf thrown over it all for good measure. Her very large deep dark sunglasses complete her attire that conceals her completely. She shakes her head to decline my request for a photo.
Umm Khalid is accompanied by Rajeeb, an Egyptian artisan who helps make the bling-bling and speaks a little English. Sitting next to Umm Khalid is a gentleman dressed in a smart looking cream colored khandora (gown), a red checkered ghutra (head scarf) held in place by an igal (a black cord). Rejeeb introduces him as King Gaboabraa. I think they are kidding me but I give him a cursory bow anyway.
All during my visit with Umm Khalid there is a steady stream of customers who Rajeeb proudly announce as Sheikh so-and-so. When I question him about so many Sheikh out doing their own shopping he retorts, “Oh, they are just little sheiks!”
“Umm Khalid,” I ask through Rajeeb, “I would like to buy one of your creations. Can you please show me something?”
Beautiful camel hatat fit for a sheikh . . . but too expensive for mine and Roger’s taste.
She produces a beautiful gold and green “necklace” she tells us is similar to a piece purchased during this festival by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region where this camel festival is held. She sells it for 5,000 dirhams ($1362+). I can sense Roger tensing up.
After tea and more conversation I try again. “Since I do not have a camel perhaps there is another piece that is more affordable for my humble purse.”
Rajeeb’s response is, “you are at one of the greatest camel festivals in the Arabian world and there are plenty of camels here to buy.”
Roger deadpans that we only get two parking spaces at our apartment and therefore have no place to put a camel.
Our camel bling-bling displayed on our only camel - a treasured camel hide bench.
Rajeeb comes back with a beautiful yellow and gold number (not real gold) for 100 dirhams ($27+). I hear Roger let out a sigh as he digs quickly into his wallet like a saved man.
Both Roger and I were pleased with our purchase. Roger because he didn't have to buy a camel, and me because I have one more unique item for my growing collection of Middle East regalia. Maybe I can hang it next to my Omani wedding dress?