This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
In January of 2021 I was lucky enough to watch the Wadi Zalaqa camel race, which is held annually in Egypt’s Sinai desert. A brutal 28-kilometres long, it takes its name from the Zalaqa valley in the southern Sinai Peninsula and is considered one of the oldest camel races in the world.
Camel racing is a popular sport in the Middle East, dating back to at least the 7th century. It’s especially popular in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf countries, where racing is a multi-million pound business. Camels were domesticated in the region more than 3,500 years ago, and traditionally used by Bedouin to travel across barren lands with heavy loads.
Modern races are usually between 1.5 and 8 kilometres, with camels reaching speeds of up to 65 kilometres per hour. The Wadi Zalaqa race, however, is much longer and focused on endurance. All participants come from the two largest Bedouin tribes living in the Sinai – the Tarabin from the north and the Mazina from the south. It’s is a peaceful celebration of Bedouin tradition and a way to bring Sinai families and tribes together.
Unlike the northern part of the Sinai, which has long been troubled by instability and Jihadist violence, the South Sinai is peaceful, making the race popular with tourists. Every year, about 30 young boys, chosen from the tribes for their light weight, begin competing at the first light of the day, followed by four-wheelers full of cheering fans. The camels have been trained by the tribes and put on strict diets for the competition. Up for grabs is a 4x4 and an undisclosed cash prize – plus, of course, bragging rights until the next race.
For decades, children from Pakistan, India and parts of Africa have been trafficked to the Middle East to become camel jockeys. In 2005, the UAE outlawed the use of children in camel races, replacing underage jockeys with robots. But NGO Anti-Slavery International says there is evidence children are still being smuggled against their will into the Persian Gulf to take part in the sport.
That’s not the case here, with Wadi Zalaqa racers taught to ride by their families and the elders of their tribes. After three consecutive years of Mazina victories, the Tarabin tribe took out the first three places in 2021. They celebrated by firing guns into the air and were later joined by the rest of the jockeys – the true stars of the show.
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