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The UNESCO-listed oral tradition of Alheda’a reflects the enduring bond between Arabs and camels

RIYADH: Alheda’a, a folk art passed down through generations in Arab societies, embodies the deep connection between camels and local people.

Camel herders use Alheda’a – a combination of sounds, gestures and sometimes musical instruments – to communicate with their camels. These rhythmic expressions inspired by poetry form a unique vocabulary that camels seem to understand and obey.

According to a report by the Saudi Press Agency published on June 29, shepherds use Alheda’a to guide their camels through the desert, find grazing pastures and prepare them for watering, milking and riding. It also allows them to gather the herd quickly in the event of sandstorms.

Historical accounts credit Mudar bin Nizar with inventing Alheda’a. After falling from the camel, he kept shouting, “Waidah! Waidah!” (Oh, my hand!). The camels began to move, beginning the tradition of using voice signals to guide the camels.

Early Alheda’a imitated the natural sounds of camels – shepherds urging their animals along with sounds including “Heh”, “Doh” and “Dah”. These vocalizations, along with rajaz (short, improvised poems), are still used today, but their use varies depending on the setting.

Over time, Alheda’a evolved into a more poetic art form with distinct styles and vocabulary. It contains deeper meanings, sung verses and balanced rhythms.

Saudi folk heritage researcher Ibrahim Al-Khaldi told SPA that Alheda’a was “indispensable” for nomadic caravans. It usually involved two people reciting simple rhyming verses in unison, a practice that helped encourage camels to fetch water from wells. For larger tasks of fetching water, where gathering distant camels was crucial, up to four people could recite the Alheda’a. Their voices, carried in the silence of a desert night or dawn, traveled a great distance.

The chairman of the Saudi Society for the Study of Camels, Dr. Mohammed Al-Otaibi, told SPA that Alheda’a existed in pre-Islamic times. Short, powerful chants helped to rally the camels, direct their movement and direct them back to their resting places.

Alheda’a, inscribed in 2022 on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, has various specific chants – for leaving, traveling, watering, collecting and drawing water from wells.

Camels have a unique place in Arab society. In recognition of this rich cultural heritage, the Camel Club was established in Saudi Arabia in 2017 at the behest of King Salman.

The Ministry of Culture has even declared 2024 the “Year of the Camel” in honor of the animal, which is considered a cultural treasure, a pillar of national identity and a valuable part of Arab heritage.

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