This is Suleiman, the child jockey

Suleiman, at the Hamad Hospital Paediatric Ward, in March 2001. He fell off a camel.

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. At least 90 per cent of the children suffer anal-bleeding and crushed testes.

According to the nurse, Suleiman is lucky. Only a couple of weeks ago, another little one was discharged after four months. He was admitted with a severe skull fracture — he was thrown off his camel and was hit by the hooves of another camel. The c hild had no visitors and on discharge was handed over to the Sudanese embassy.

These are children with just a name — without identity, official papers, and a future.

We don’t know where Suleiman is today. He must be 18 or 20 now.

He will be glad to know that the camel owners and trainers will not even want children like him back on the saddle. Because you see, the robots are so much more effective, and the camels are the fastest they’ve ever been.

A recent short documentary (no more than 3 minutes) on the robot jockeys is very informative, and fascinating.  I understand that as a scientific achievement and the social changes it brought about, the robots must be publicised, their inventors as well. I also understand that there is only so much that can be said or covered in 3 minutes.

I only wish they had not focussed it on the one interviewee, Rashid Ali Ibrahim the man who made the prototype. I was sick to my stomach listening to him talk. Here are just a couple of his quotes:

Human rights organisations always criticised Gulf countries for using child jockeys in camel races. (Didn’t those using them feel any guilt at all?)

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. (Because the camels are breaking speed records with robot jockeys, that weigh only 3 kilos. The children would weigh up to  10-11 kgs. 4 to 5 year olds.)

Seriously? Could you belittle those babies of 3 and 4 any more?

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.

I also wish the documentary had interview Dr Sheikha Ghaliya Al Thani who was the then head of NHRC, who went up against a very powerful lobby to ban child jockeys and pushed for alternatives.

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?

PS: I am incredibly happy that robot jockeys were developed, and do not mean to belittle that achievement. Or this documentary in any manner.