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Thursday, March 27, 2003

Camel Races

News of an Iraqi convoy heading south out of Baghdad reminded me of a trip to Dubai in 1985.

I was in a small group of visiting Naval Officers being hosted by members of the British ex-patriot community for a few days. We spent one afternoon 4-wheeling through the dry riverbeds, or wadis, out in the desert, “Wadi Bashing,” is what the Brits called it. The terrain is generally very rough and mountainous, but there are big, flat sandy areas in some of the wadis. It was perfect for some rough driving in the Land Rovers… and perfect for a desert picnic. I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more.

The evening after wadi bashing, I was invited to tag along with my hosts to the camel races. Accepting the invitation was one of the best decisions I made that week. I was just looking forward to another drive in the desert, little did I know how much fun this one would be. Early in the evening I was picked up and we headed out of town, back into the desert. We drove for a while and turned off the road into one of the many wadis. It was almost mountainous, although not very high, but very rough and rocky. As we rounded the first bend there was one of those big, flat areas we had noticed the day before.

The riverbed was probably a little more than 2 miles long before it disappeared around a bend. There were sharp cliffs on one side and a gentler, more rocky and hilly terrain on the other side, making a pseudo-canyon a bit less than a mile wide. There were 25 or 30 cars there with a few more following behind us. Land Rovers, Suzuki SUVs, Jeeps, Toyota pick-ups, and Mercedes diesel sedans were stopped haphazardly with small groups of friends milling around and socializing in an Arab-style desert tailgate party. There was plenty of food, but the main question was “Brown or White?”... meaning Whiskey or Gin. It was strange that everyone was so very discreet with the drinking, but absolutley no one was bothered by it. It wasn't the only oddity.

We talked about the strange mixture of the group, British men and women, many Arabs, an American, and even a small group of Japanese men. We laughed a lot and were just enjoying the company and the beautiful desert evening. I did notice a few boys on camels watching our curious group from the perimeter, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a racetrack or even a race. I could see that some of the Arab men were betting, but that was the only indication of racing that I noticed.

I was engrossed in a story one of the group was telling and trying to get my drink freshened up, when suddenly all hell broke loose. It seemed that everyone had to get to the closest vehicle and get out of Dodge as fast as they could. For a moment I was confused by all the activity and finally made a dash to the Land Rover I arrived in, not appreciating the urgency of the situation. The next sight is one that will stick with me forever.

The boys on camels I had noticed earlier, about 10 of them or so, had bolted from one end of the wadi heading for the other, guiding their loping camels to some unseen finish line somewhere up the wadi. In their trail was this fleet of cars speeding through the desert, dust flying everywhere, none following any road. Some vehicles had people hanging out of windows, shaking their fists and waving their arms. I saw jeeps with people standing up on the seats holding onto the roll bars with one hand and drinks in the other. I saw heads sticking out of sun roofs of sedans, all wildly cheering these boys while avoiding running into the other spectators and although I'm not sure I'm sure some of them waved fists full of cash. I imagined myself dressed in thobe and kaffiyah ala Yosemite Sam, charging with a horde of other cartoons characters toward some comic catastrophe. I was a little slow on the uptake and couldn’t really follow the camel race. In my mind we weren’t watching the race we WERE the race. It was sort of a combination of Gumball Rally, Penelope Pitstop, Bugs Bunny and Raiders of the Lost Ark. If Mel Brooks had done Blazing Camel Saddles, this scene would have closed it. It was, a real cluster-@*$# and I'm amazed no one was hurt and no cars were damaged.

It’s that haphazard collection of vehicles that came to my mind when I read reports of “light vehicles” moving south out of Baghdad. I'm sure I had more fun racing with the camels than they had racing into battle. But I'm not sure the Iraqi column any much more organized.


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