Known as one of the world’s weirdest sports, camel jumping has made a comeback in Yemen. No, this is not equestrian show jumping with camels, but men jumping OVER camels.
The popularity of this cultural sport declined over hundreds of years but has recently made a comeback amongst the youth of the al-Zaraneeq tribe in the west coast of Yemen. It is traditionally held on special occasions such as weddings, Eids and during the annual festival of al-Khamis which marks the end of the tribe’s palm season, although it can be practised by the best jumpers all year round. Before the event starts, there is singing, dancing and cultural music which the camel jumping contestants participate in. Event contestants are noticeable throughout the village as they wear light blue garb which they roll up and tuck into their waist prior to jumping.
The sport seems fairly straight forward: it starts off with a single camel held in place by its reins and tail standing before a ramp made of hard packed mud and dried weeds, with the landing area behind the camel. Running barefoot and at full speed the men attempt to launch themselves over the camel and land in the landing area neatly. Camels are added to the line as the competition progresses. Although there are no points on style, the competitors always jump with their feet in the lead, similar to an athlete doing long jump. Usually participants can jump up to four to five camels, whilst professionals have been known to reach six camels. The winner is the person who can jump over the most camels cleanly.
This sport seems simple enough – run, launch off the ramp and jump over a few camels – but it is far from this. The sport can be quite dangerous, with participants at risk of injury if they fail to jump over all camels or if they land incorrectly. The landing is a danger of its own, as the jumpers either land straight onto the sand or the hard packed dirt bare footed, and if they mess up the jump, land on their backside. To put this into perspective, a camel’s height is around 2.15 metres from the hump. That’s a decent and somewhat painful height to land from, especially if one lands barefooted or backside first!
The al-Zaraneeq tribe (exclusively the men), are the only known people who practise this unique sport. The origins of this sport are not well known but can be traced several generations back. The tribe believe that it began as a dare between two tribesmen that eventually evolved into a cultural game. Others rumour it to have begun when a trader was trying to negotiate a price deal on some camels.
The al-Zaraneeq tribe are said to not use weapons in battles but instead rely on their strength and stamina to overcome enemies. They are the largest and most formidable tribe in North Yemen. The sport is said to be a rite of passage for the young men as it is a way to prove their strength, speed and courage. Although the prize money can be up to 30,000 rial (which is roughly one months wage in Yemen), most competitors participate to not only gain tribal respect and be considered a warrior but to keep the tradition of their forefathers alive and in turn, pass it on to future generations.