I am a wolf and they’re wolves, and by god’s will, I will eat them! That’s Fatima Ali Alhameli for you—the first female Emirati camel owner to participate with her ward in a camel beauty competition, if you please! With that—and she also participates in the Abu Dhabi camel auction—she’s breaching all-male Arab bastions.
This feisty, middle-aged Bedouin woman camel herder is swathed from head to toe in a black abaya; her face framed in an exotic batula—a shimmering gold-coloured contraption that covers her eyebrows, nose and mouth. But the moment she speaks, you hear the salty, desert air in her rasping, commanding voice, and you immediately sense that her thoughts, ambitions and spirit are far too grand to be constrained by age, gender, swaddling clothes, mocking, patriarchal Arab men or centuries-old Bedouin traditions. She is the heart and soul of a wonderfully uplifting feature-length documentary Samma Qarribah (Nearby Sky) by Nujoom Alghanem, a brilliant woman director from the United Arab Emirates. This film won Alghanem the Muhr Award for Best Arab Non-Fiction Film at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2014.
Married at 15, and unlettered, Alhameli says she is most at ease in the open desert: “I feel the sky is nearby and god is close to me. I feel as if I were just born. I feel free.”
Daughter of a Bedouin nomad camel herder, her life’s ambition is pitifully modest. All she wants to do is enter her beloved animals in the camel beauty pageant and participate in the camel auctions. But surly male Arab organisers are outraged at a woman in their midst, the other participants are jealous that the TV cameras focus on her as the lone woman, and her grown-up sons are thoroughly embarrassed. “She loves her camels more than us,” her sons complain.
But Alhameli’s stout personality shines through in her kohl’d eyes, five flashy rings, outsize watch, fingertips dyed in dark henna, and jaunty red-and-white socks. She juggles her camels, a smartphone and a Sudanese Sancho Panza, Mohammed, with elan.
“Fatima’s parents were divorced when she was five, and her father kidnapped Fatima and thrashed her mother,” says director Alghanem. “That trauma needed this journey. She’s a strong and angry woman who won’t tolerate suppression. She has realised her strength. She has a loud, strong voice, which she used to call her camels across the desert, and only slowly learnt to speak to me softly. Wo-wo-wo! Go, she tells the camels. Ho-ho-ho means come. I saw the compassion and tenderness with which she treats her camels—they kiss her.” She bathes them tenderly as she would a son or lover. As she stretches to kiss a camel, it suddenly rears and she swears, “Goddamn you!” She’s a spunky woman with whom you fall in love immediately.
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)