RUMAH: In the golden dunes of the Saudi desert, herder Hamad al-Marri emits cries incomprehensible to all but his dromedaries, which react instantly and gather behind him in marching order, carrying on an age-old oral tradition.
Accompanied by songs and gestures, this form of expression called Alheda’a makes it possible to lead herds of camelids across the wide expanses of sand of the Arabian Peninsula.
Inscribed in December 2022 by Unesco on the list of intangible cultural heritage, the Alheda’a highlights the special links between these animals and the breeders of the Gulf region.
“There is a special language between the owner and his dromedary”, explains this 36-year-old civil servant, who grazes a hundred animals 150 km northeast of the capital Riyadh.
“Camels recognize the sound of their owner’s voice and respond immediately,” he adds, stressing that they do not “respond” to unfamiliar voices.
Called the “ships of the desert”, Arabian one-humped camels have long been a primary mode of transport in the kingdom, supporting a lucrative herding business.
“There are many rock inscriptions showing camels being painted and telling (their) history, whether in war or for trade,” said Jasser al-Harbash, who heads the Saudi Commission for Heritage.
The application for inclusion of Alheda’a on the UNESCO list, submitted by Arabia and two neighboring countries – Oman and the United Arab Emirates – aims to “protect” this tradition of the Gulf, and support “its development,” said the Saudi official.
Each breeder, according to Unesco, uses a unique repertoire of sounds to guide his herd, or to quickly round up the animals in the event of imminent danger, such as a sandstorm.
Camels are trained “to differentiate right from left, to open their mouths when asked and to kneel down to be ridden”, explains Unesco on its website, underlining the “strong link” created with the animal.
The practice is “transmitted within families and communities, with children accompanying adults on their daily journeys”, adds the same source.
It was by observing his father and grandfathers that businessman Mansour al-Qatula says he learned the art of talking to animals.
In turn, he shares with his three children a “heritage transmitted from father to son for hundreds of years”.
“My children love it, they always ask to come here, and their voices are also recognized,” he told AFP.
Beauty pageant and facelift
With around 100 animals in his herd, the breeder participated earlier this month in the prestigious camel festival of King Salman ben Abdelaziz Al-Saud, a very well-attended event organized each year in the kingdom.
On the menu, groceries and a cfamous beauty contest based on demanding criteria.
Animals are judged on their lips, their neck, their hump or their color, with prizes totaling 350 million riyals (86 million euros).
During the last edition, several participants had been disqualified for having injected botox into their camelids.
For Mansour al-Qatula, the Alheda’a makes it possible to forge unique bonds with animals.
“When the owner is interested in his camel, takes care of him and visits him regularly, he returns it well”, he explains, stroking one of his animals.
When he begins to sing for him, the animal lets out a blater. “Look,” he said, laughing. “He shares my feelings.”