Academic journal article Ethnology

Poetics and Politics of Newly Invented Traditions in the Gulf: Camel Racing in the United Arab Emirates(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Poetics and Politics of Newly Invented Traditions in the Gulf: Camel Racing in the United Arab Emirates(1)

Article excerpt

This article provides ethnographic documentation and analysis of the poetry and politics of heritage revival displayed in the invented tradition of camel racing in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, viewed here as a representative case study of the wider Gulf. Preserving UAE heritage and maintaining national identity in the context of threatening forces of modernization constitute the dynamics of inventing this tradition, giving meaning to Badu (Bedouin) poetic voice and its politico-cultural discourse. The annual celebrations and activities surrounding the glorification of the thoroughbred camel as a cultural icon are given new meaning, rhetoric, and direction for a community reconstructing itself as a modern nation-state within shifting global contexts. (The Arab Gulf, United Arab Emirates, heritage revival, invented traditions, camel racing, cultural change)

Oil wealth has transformed Arab Gulf societies in rapid and profound ways. It was not easy for centuries-old traditional, subsistence-based economic activities to adjust to the new oil economy, which became rapidly integrated within the aggressive capitalist global economy. Old economic industries and modes of material life collapsed, including pearling, fishing, sea trade, ship building, small-scale oasis agriculture, and pastoralism. In the case of the United Arab Emirates in the 1960s and 1970s, new socioeconomic realities were generated, as evidenced, for example, by the massive sedentarization of the Badu (Bedouin) in new villages and urban centers where they now enjoy the blessings of wealth and high-consumption, air-conditioned life.

Within this new economic context, the previous benefits and uses of the camel, once essential to the Badu pastoral life ways, disappeared quite rapidly. The camel and its desert ecology were neglected and marginalized. In the new oil cultural ecology the camel that was once the all-wonderful, all-purpose, four-hoof driving animal gave way to the Toyota four-wheel driving machine. The metaphoric "ship of the desert' has retired from sailing across sand dunes and now is carried on wheels to various destinations in the Gull including the camel racetracks.

The rapid marginalization of the camel throughout the Gulf during the early decades of the oil revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was halted significantly when the sudden demise of the camel pastoralist economy and its culture brought a realization of the importance of preserving and reviving elements of traditional culture. The Badu camel culture in general and racing camels in particular came to be part of a large-scale cultural revival. Racing camels, known locally as al-hejin (literally, breeds of fine quality), have returned in large numbers, carried by trucks from near and far throughout the Gulf to the large race tracks built recently near most major cities.

In the UAE, during the long racing season from October to April, the slender, tall, greyhound-like hejin become the center of attention for locals and expatriates. Television screens (which now are common everywhere) bring this invented traditional sport to every family in the comfort of their own home. Equally important, the races bring the people involved in this growing national industry not only cultural capital, satisfaction, and social honor, but also material benefits: employment as breeders and trainers, and cash prizes such as four-wheelers and luxury cars like the Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus.

This article aims to provide ethnographic documentation and analysis of the poetry and politics of heritage revival displayed in the traditions of camel racing in the oil-rich UAE. The UAE as an "imagined community" (Anderson 1998) rests on certain cultural, heritage-related foundations among which camel culture occupies a central position. This invention of camel culture in the celebration of annual camel festivals provides links to the historical past of the Emirates' pastoral way of life that has been swept away by oil-triggered modernization. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.