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October 31, 2019
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November 7, 2019

Call of the camels

Dutch artist Hil van der Waal’s photographs capture the true essence of ‘ardha’

Silently adorning the walls of Bastah Majan – an indigenous Omani café in Azaiba – Dutch artist Hil van der Waal’s photographs of Omani camels say volumes about an age-old tradition in the sultanate as well as about his romance with these undisputed icons of Arabia.

Hil happened to witness the traditional Omani camel showcasing event ardha –  which is now on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List – just by chance while exploring the countryside. He felt so drawn to this four-day annual meet of bedouins that takes place around November in a village in Barka, that he kept frequenting it to understand and capture its essence in his lens.

Oman is the only Arab country where this kind of event is practised, and the tradition goes back centuries, says Hil, explaining that the main purpose of ardha is to showcase the beauty and strength of  Arabian camels, riding them side by side on a straight track.

“The camels don’t race but instead, the main goal is for them to run as a pair, perfectly in tandem, thus demonstrating their obedience and control by the riders,” says Hil, who has been living in Oman for around six years and gained his Associate distinction (ARPS) at the Royal Photographic Society in 2011.

Hil says he always tries to get close to communities that are not easy to reach, or take time to settle into. Be it tribal life in remote Borneo, bedouins in Oman’s desert, small-scale farm life in Scotland, areas with labourers in India, or aboard a wooden dhow of Iranian seafarers in Dubai’s

Creek –  all of these have a special charm for him and he always tries to capture exclusive moments on his camera.

Hil first visited Oman 20 years ago when the sultanate was developing on many fronts and life was much less complicated. He noticed there were certain long-cherished cultural traditions, and camel ardha was one of these.

His romance and fascination for the Omani camel that began then only grew stronger as he understood every aspect and feature that differentiated camels from each other.

“Over the years, I started to appreciate the importance of the camel in Omani culture, more than I had done before. It has great importance in the culture, as a means of transport, as a source of food, as a possession for people that was valuable, in races and entertainment,” Hill told TheWeek.

His black and white photographs put up in varied sizes in the café bring to life various aspects, moods and the essence of ardha.

And since Bastah Majan is an Omani café frequented by students and professionals, the display gels well with its ambience.

The photographs are available for sale, mounted as well unframed, for price ranging from RO40 to RO450. Many guests have shown keen interest in them, which is reflected in the bookings since the display went up on October 1.

The display continues till the end of November while Hil plans to say goodbye to Oman in December after a fruitful sojourn –  one of the best in his photography career.

There have been dangerous moments during his photo shoots when he has had to pull himself and his equipment to safety in the nick of time to avoid getting trampled by charging camels.

Explaining the many characteristics of camels – some are calm, others aggressive, stubborn or unpredictable – Hil says thathe now looks upon the animals differently.

“There is sort of a general rule that the animals are not scared if you aren’t and vice versa.” Hil, however, adds that he hasn’t been able to bond with any of the camels the way their owners do, as he has been mostly an ‘outsider’ to them on his own mission.