'Bedouin Mad Max': Inside the secret camel race of South Sinai
Boys strapped to camels streak through the desert at dawn as hundreds of beeping pick-up trucks packed with Bedouins try to keep up with the frenetic pace.
Riders whip their camels to overtake one another as spectators navigate crashes and dust to follow the race as closely as possible in their cars. It’s the annual Zalaga Camel Race in South Sinai, Egypt.
At 7.30 am on January 10 every year, over 40 camels, their riders and more than three hundred cars carrying spectators gather at Wadi Zalaga in Southern Sinai for a 30-kilometre race through the dusty valley.
The competition has taken place between the Muzeina and Tarabeen tribes since the early 1980s when Egypt took back control of Sinai from Israel. Today the race remains almost secret to the outside world with only a small number of tourists attending.
"The camel is very emblematic of Bedouin culture, the survival in the desert, the nomadic aspect, the ability to travel, to endure the landscape"
“It’s one of the biggest events in the modern sense that epitomises the Bedouin culture… the fast cars, camels, and the rush to glory,” Matthew Sparks, an anthropologist and historian of Sinai, told The New Arab.
“You're riding in the open back of a car. It's bumpy, it's quick, it's fast. People are falling off and cars are breaking down in the desert. It's a cultural thrill. It's Bedouin Mad Max.”
This year the race started too early. The sun hadn’t risen when our driver banged on a metal pan and shouted at everyone in the tent to wake up.
Only half of the camels made it to the start line in time. Tarabeen riders, conscious that the Muzeina had won the race the past two years, set off an hour before the usual time, catching their opponents and most of the spectators off-guard.
Frantic Bedouins who had spent months looking forward to the race piled into the back of pick-ups and sped through the hazy morning to catch up with the fastest camel riders.
“It’s a magical event for both Egyptians and foreigners,” Egyptian filmmaker Karim Ali, director of The Children behind Zalaga, a documentary about the boy racers, told The New Arab.
“This race in the middle of the desert in Sinai is a unique event with unique people and traditions.”
Cultural Significance in Sinai
The race takes place in a deep valley in an extremely isolated spot in South Sinai. Thousands of Bedouins from tribes across Sinai come together and drink tea around the campfire with friends and race camels, as their ancestors have done before them for a thousand years.
“The race is a celebration of the camel — the camel racing tradition in all of its glory, as it's gone on for years and years and years,” said Sparks.
“The camel is very emblematic of Bedouin culture, the survival in the desert, the nomadic aspect, the ability to travel, to endure the landscape.”
It’s not the easiest or most comfortable event to attend, reflecting the real challenges many Sinai Bedouins face. After driving two hours on the winding roads from Dahab, we then drove two hours along bumpy dirt tracks to Wadi Zalaga and camped in the freezing desert overnight.
Tito al-Tarabani of the Tarabeen tribe told me around the campfire that the Bedouins of South Sinai are tough, resilient people. “We are strong. We survive these conditions — could you? I don’t think so.”
In recent decades, some Sinai Bedouins have been forced to abandon their traditional way of life, as government intervention has caused them to lose ancestral lands, while socio-economic pressures have forced many to relocate to urban areas for work opportunities.
Zalaga provides an opportunity to return to their traditions.
“There is a huge pride about taking part in the race,” said Ali. "When I meet men who took part in the race when they were kids, they tell me with great pride that they took first or second place. The camel race is an important part of their community."
We spent 45 minutes bouncing through the desert in our car. After missing the start, our driver expertly navigated every bump and groove to catch up with the main pack.
When we finally drew level, the next thirty minutes or so whirled past in a storm of excitement, danger and dust. The fastest camel rider crossed the finish line, and the race was over.
Everywhere Bedouins were cheering loudly, hugging one another and chanting loudly praising the Tarabeen or Muzeina tribes.
Following the confusion at the start line, a Tarabeen rider won the race. At the finish line, there was a debate between the Tarabeen and Muzeina about the fairness of the outcome.
“The Tarabeen won with three, if it was just one I would say it was unfair,” al-Tarabani said, supporting his tribe.
After deliberation between tribal leaders, the judge announced the race was a tie. The Tarabeen won the first race and Muzeina riders who started much later won the second.
Spectators quickly dispersed in their cars and camels were strapped into the back of pick-up trucks to return to their usual life.
Despite the drama and competitive spirit of the race day, it isn’t all about competition, according to Ali. “The Bedouins come together at Zalaga to fix their issues and talk. It’s social and celebratory… It's not about the prize. The winner takes 30,000 EGP [$1,000] — it’s not a huge prize.”
“Bedouin society is very pure and rich. They have their own rules and their respect. When you come to the race, you see the respect Bedouins have for guests, for one another and their traditions."
A week after the race took place, the leaders of the two tribes decided that for the first time in history, the race would be re-run on February 10 to decide a winner.
Lara Gibson is a Cairo-based journalist closely following Egypt's economic and political developments.
Follow her on Twitter: @lar_gibson