About a month ago, Adam, spotter of weird internet stuff par excellence, sent me a link to a ‘beautiful camel’ competition in Dubai with a question: do they have anything like this in Egypt?

I asked friends who said,”Belle, where are you living? Of course we do!” But they’re not easy to find like those in the Gulf states. A beautiful camel competition, for those of you who are unawares is, obviously, a beauty competition for camels.

Popular in the Arab region, the most fetching animal can haul in a swag of cash. Beautiful goat competitions have sprung up recently too, in a part of the world where displaying your womenfolk in skimpy bikinis to be ogled by other men is considered uncouth.

So I hunted around but found mostly just camel races, with a gathering each May in south Sinai the big event. The exception was the Characters of Egypt gathering. In only its second year, the event gathers tribes from across Egypt to play traditional music, compete in tugs-of-war and other physical feats and yes, to race camels.
As to be expected, it’s organised by a foreigner. The reaction from some Cairenes when I mentioned I was going to head down past Marsa Alam (12 hours by bus, 1:20 hour flight) to hang out with Bedouin tribesmen, was lots of giggling and slight disbelief. However, others were more impressed.

“We saw it on Facebook and thought it’d be a cool thing to go to,” a young, funky banker told me on why she and her friends had made the trek. There were representatives of tribes from Siwa on the Libyan border, the Farafra oasis in the Western Desert, Nubia, north and south Sinai and the local tribes from by the Red Sea or in the nearby mountains, way down here on the Sudanese border.

We spent two days at the camp, learning to tell the difference between the tribes – all wear light-coloured gellibayas, but some, like Al-Bashariya and Al-Ababda, put a black waistcoat over the top, while the North Sinai men wear red-and-white scarves (kufiya) with the black ring (iqal) to hold it down, a sight common in the gulf states, which they’re closest to.

The Nubians were set apart because they’re darker, and now not so nomadic, and also they were the only people to bring women with them. Yeah, they had the girls. And sexy girls, too. Unveiled and all, being presenters for Nubian TV, which was there in force, along with plenty of other media. The older, heavily cloaked traditional Nubian women gave me a quick lesson in zagaroota, the ululating they do when celebrating or dancing and one another painted a henna design around my arm, the tribes discussed the steep rise of hotels on their land, and everyone was dragged up for a dance around the fires at night.

The local tribes brought their camels and caretas (carts) to take people out into the nearby Wadi Gamel, travelling also with their flock of goats and a few tall donkeys who roamed about our tents like grey ghosts in the night.

Amazingly, I met old friends including Gomma, my young guide from Siwa who proved to be an enthusiastic stilt dancer, some of the organisers of the Egyptian 4WD rally I went to in Bahariyya oasis in February, and an old Bedouin remembered giving me a ride in his pick-up in Sharm el Sheik (to prove he knew me, and wasn’t just doing a line, he told me, ‘You said you wouldn’t give me your phone number because your husband will get mad,’ a line I use every day).

The camel from North Sinai won the race pot, LE15,000 (about US$5000) and Siwa won the hotly-contested tug-of-war.

Logistically, it was amazing. Held in the desert in a national park about 60km from the town of Marsa Salam, you could either stay in a nearby five-star hotel or pitch a tent, the admission fee covering three meals a day and however much tea or coffee you could cadge from the kitchen. There were even tents for hire and the media tent had internet that was fast, but sporadic. The tribes also displayed their handcrafts in the ‘giftshop’, a tent selling everything from elaborate musical instruments to cartons of cigarettes (the most popular item).

If you’re here next year, I would absolutely recommend going, so you can get up close and personal with a way of life that’s completely different to many in Egypt.

Marsa Alam is a mess of half-baked construction sites, a ratty bus depot and a flash new airport where, three days after we’d all packed up and gone home, Beyonce flew in to perform in a remote luxury resort. From Bedouins to Beyonce, Egypt once again shows two its many faces. www.charactersofegypt.com