(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
Camels are the most prestigious animal as they are seen as a link to the past, are the most expensive animal and are needed for marriages and funeral feasts. There is a small but growing interest in camel races and camel beauty contests, but those are events organized by the government (partially for tourism purposes) and while people participate and enjoy they aren’t seen as part of traditional Dhofari culture. No one travels by camels now except for men such as Ahmed Harib al Mahrouqi, who does camel treks to promote Omani culture. A few Gibali men I know remember riding them as children and have stories from the older generation (fathers/ uncles) about traveling by camel.
All camels, cows and goats in Dhofar are owned by someone. A person can have any number of each animal but will usually have only one kind. 20 to 50 camels with one owner is the median; some men have more than one hundred. A person with one or only a few will add them to a family member’s herd; relatives working together will rotating the daily responsibility of watching them, have one person do to the work or jointly hire a shepherd. Sometimes a child is given an animal when they are born so that animal is herded with the family’s animals and all its offspring belong to the child. Usually herds are all owned by people within one family. It is less common to have friends herd their animals together.
The herding is done by the animals’ owners or hired expat workers; the owners know the names and characteristics of all their camels, including parents, age and temperament. Some older men keep camels almost as pets, seldom selling them as meat and spending a lot of money on feed to the occasional consternation of their children. Now and in the past, dried sardines are used as feed during the dry months.
Some herds are kept near permanent homes. Other herds are moved among several different places depending on the season and rainfall. These places might be improved with a metal-framed tent which could be locked to hold supplies or a windbreak that a man or someone in his family made.
Camels are sometimes simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, some herds will come home by themselves when an owner or herder hits the metal feeding troughs and hollers. Hearing these familiar sounds, the camels will slowly perk up and start to move homewards, naturally clumping together and often organizing themselves in lines nose to tail. Once they get close to the corral/ feeding spot they will sometimes start to trot or race each other, shouldering each other; humans need to get out of the way. Mother camels have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; this (and the idea of extra food, water and safety) keeps most camels returning home every night.
Normal daily herding is done with one or two pick-ups or two or three men on motorbikes for longer distances; when the herders need to get camels moved across roads, the pick-ups will be parked on the shoulder with blinkers on to let traffic know camels are close to crossing. In the mountains, men will drive on dirt tracks to a spot on the far side of the camels and then walk, waving a stick and whooping occasionally, them back to the corral or to a long, stone or wood wind-break that the camels will bed down next to.
For the khareef (June-September monsoon season) camels are kept in camps on the flat plain (jarbaeb in Gibali/ Jibbali/ Shahri) at the foot of the mountains. To keep the camels from wandering into populated areas, between Salalah and the jarbaeb, the Dhofari municipality has built a road which has a shoulder-high divide and is steeply graded so camels can’t cross it; camels, either on their own or with the prompting of herders, use the roundabout to get to the other side of this divide.
Men milk the lactating camels after the animals have been fed and watered in the evening; as camels are so tall, men do this standing up, balancing the bowl on their raised knee. It’s somewhat precarious as it’s hard to keep one’s balance, even harder if the camel is moving about.
Young male camels are usually killed for meat as adult male camels are ornery and people usually only keep one or two males which are often kept in a coral. If a male camel is let out, it is usually hobbled.
Not all camels are herded home, so you need to be careful on roads in the mountains at night. A head-on collision is a forgone deadly conclusion. Camels have long legs so the body will hit the hood of the car and come straight through the windshield.
To prevent accidents, when you pass camels on or near a road, it is a driver’s duty to turn on the hazards to signal on-coming traffic. Older camels walking in line are normally safe and will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at speed, but you never know when one might scare. Baby camels are the most dangerous, as they will take off in any direction at the slightest provocation, sometimes causing other camels to panic.
Throughout the region there are common vocalizations to tell camels to come or that there is water and food. Men raised with camels will stop and help herd camels which are in the middle of roads, but under no other circumstances should anyone interfere with another person’s camels. Only if dying of thirst should anyone milk a camel that isn’t theirs.
Children raised with camels have no fear, and as young as four or five will move about a herd easily, pushing camels out of their way. Girls might work with camels until they reach near puberty, then family/ social pressure will keep them from herding camels, but they might herd goats.