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For nine days the animals paraded before a grandstand—camels of all sorts, the most prestigious being groupings of 35 females—and imperious judges waved away the homelier groups with their dejected owners. As the days passed, the judges rewarded certain standards with dispatch, winnowing a field of some 24,000 contestants.

By the tenth day just two Bedouin men remained with their resplendent beasts. The men—who as elder heads of their families went by family names, Bin Tanaf and Rames—would face each other in a meeting fraught with intrigue and rivalry, since they were cousins from the same tribe. For years they had jostled for position and prestige at smaller contests, and the result now would decide each man's place not only in the world of camels but also within his very tribe. The winner stood to leave with extravagant prizes, yes, but more important, with family honor.

So each sent spies. Beauty spies, who scoured the camps for the one especially gorgeous camel that—once purchased—might give him an edge when the sun rose and judgment began.

Consider, for a moment, the camel. Note the great hump, the lolling mound of fat that sways with each step of the skinny legs. The knock-knees and flat feet less happy at a run than a galumph. See the neck, too, drooping as if under the weight of the head. And then the head itself: the absurd eyelashes fluttering above oblong nostrils and rubbery lips, from which dribbles a stream of thick, white cud. This is not a creature of surpassing beauty, surely; this is a creature of spare parts.

But the judges in Abu Dhabi view camels with different eyes, scrutinizing them from nose to tail and back again, evaluating each according to strict criteria. Her ears must be firm. Her back high, her hump large and symmetrical. A rump that's not too big, with just enough room for a saddle. The hair, of course, must shine. A good head is massive. Her nose should have a strong arch in the bridge, sloping toward a bottom lip that hangs down like a bauble. A long neck appeals. As do long legs. And the judges examine the two toes of the feet, looking for what their guidelines call "toe-parting length."

Because so many beauty pageants, in the end, do come down to cleavage.

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