The means of communication, known as Alheda’a, was placed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage last month and highlights the deep traditional bond between camels and inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
A skilled camel herder can use only his voice to calm an animal, make it kneel and even signal a change of direction as they trudge through the desert sands together, according to the UN cultural agency.
“There is a special language between the owner of a camel and his camel,” explains Marri, 36, an official who owns 100 camels and grazes them 150 kilometers northeast of the capital Riyadh.
“The camels know the tone of their owner’s voice and immediately respond to him, and if someone else calls them, they will not respond to him.”
Called the “ships of the desert,” camels have long been a crucial means of transportation in Saudi Arabia, lending status to their owners and fueling the rise of a lucrative camel breeding industry.
There are “many petroglyphs that show painted camels and tell the story of the camel, whether used in war or trade,” said Saudi Heritage Commission CEO Jasser al-Harbash.
The purpose of pursuing the UNESCO listing was to “protect” Alheda’a and “provide an opportunity for its development,” he said, without elaborating.
The bid was submitted together with neighboring Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
‘They know their name’
Alheda’a can be used for a variety of tasks, such as rallying a scattered herd threatened by an approaching sandstorm, or calming camels while they drink water.
“Shepherds train their camels to recognize the difference between right and left, open their mouths when prompted, and kneel to be ridden,” says UNESCO’s description of the practice.
“It is transmitted within families and communities, with children accompanying adult relatives on daily journeys.”
Saudi shepherd Mansour al-Qatula learned about Alheda’a this way, watching his father and grandfathers when he was a young boy.
He told TBEN he planned to pass it on to his three children.
“We’ve inherited the care of camels (in my family) for over 200 years,” he said. “Now my kids love it, and they’re constantly asking to come here, and their voices are known, too.”
Earlier this month, Qatula brought his camels to the seventh edition of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, which aims to promote the camel as an essential part of Saudi heritage.
Beauty pageant contestants competed for prizes totaling 350 million riyals ($93 million).
The dromedaries were judged on attributes such as their lips, necks, humps and color.
During a lull in the action, Qatula explained how Alheda’a allows herders to commit to their charges.
“The owner of the camels calls his camels by special names, and through repetition they know their name and respond to it,” he said, as one of his camels let out her own cry.
“Look,” he said, laughing as he stroked the animal. “She feels the same.”
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