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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Short film sheds light on how Qatar’s child camel jockey ban benefited camel owners

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The robot camel jockeys that were designed to replace Qatar’s child jockeys, many of whom had been trafficked from their home countries, have ultimately benefitted owners and the sport, according to their inventor.

That’s the focus of a new three-minute documentary directed by Doha-based filmmaker James Rawson, which has been shortlisted for a $200,000 prize from the FOCUS FORWARD Filmmaker Competition.

The film documents the invention of robot camel jockeys here, which made a ban on child jockeys, most of whom were aged only 4 or 5, more palatable to camel owners in Qatar.

The film features archive footage of children riding camels in Qatar, and interviews Qatari inventor Rashid Ali Ibrahim, who acknowledges that camel owners were initially dubious about the idea, but soon changed their minds when they realised how much the new, light robots could increase their animals’ speed:

“In the beginning, the majority of camel trainers opposed the idea… And now, if we said we wanted to reintroduce child jockeys, the trainers would say no way,” he says.

Qatar banned child jockeys in 2005.

In 2001, Doha based journalist Vani Saraswathi wrote an article for The Hindu about the plight of Qatar’s child jockeys. In it, she described the fate of a little boy called Suleiman, who had been admitted to Hamad Hospital after falling from a camel during a race.

She writes that his injuries were relatively minor in comparison to those of some of his colleagues:

“On a given day, at least half-a-dozen children take a tumble. The lucky ones escape with a fracture or injury, bad enough to require hospitalisation, and thus get a short-break from the terror of the track. The not-so-lucky ones suffer minor bruises, and are put right back on the camels. The real unlucky ones are those who suffer serious injuries, some of whom die”.

Saraswathi has reviewed the new documentary in her blog. Although she said she finds it “informative and fascinating,” she took issue with some of what Ibrahim says in the film:

The whole tone of his talk was about how robots have improved a traditional (ahem..! grandfather’s) sport. There wasn’t even a shred of humanity in his tone. 

Over the racing seasons of 2000 and 2001, I visited Shahaniya track half a dozen times, to report for an Indian newspaper. Those were easily the very worst memories I have of Qatar. 

After the ban of child jockeys, I tried following up with officials to find out how these children were re-homed and rehabilitated (some as old as 5 and 6 had no linguistic skills). There was no response, and the trainers at the tracks seemed to have no clue either. What has happened to those hundreds of children whose entire identity was wiped out when they were bought?

The competition’s finalists will be announced on Nov. 28.

What do you think of the film?

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