Sampling Life in Cairo's Camel Market
Feelings are mixed in a trade that is generations old
IT is hard to know quite how to feel about camels. Gliding across the empty desert, they display an air of noble stateliness and an unconcern with such mundane needs as food and drink. This can only be admired.Skip to next paragraph
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On the other hand, their supercilious indifference, their disdainful - almost condescending - reluctance to do what you ask them to, is hardly calculated to inspire affection.
As good a place as any to work out your emotions toward Camelus is the Suq el Gamel, the largest camel market in the Middle East, located in Imbaba, one of Cairo's scruffiest and poorest neighborhoods.
You know you've arrived when the flat roofs of the buildings around you are piled precariously high with bales of hay. And even before you walk through the narrow gate that leads into the market, from behind the mud-brick wall you can hear the discordant braying of camels being made to do things they don't want to do.
Once you are inside, picking your way across a broad, open courtyard, through several hundred camels and the straw and manure they have left behind, you are transported out of Cairo's urban chaos and into the world of the desert.
Ancient Sudanese herders, their black faces impassive under strikingly white turbans, squat quietly in the winter sun. Merchants huddle in corners as they argue about prices. And everywhere you look, from one end of the market to the other, there are the camels: Dark, fleecy young ones, tethered to a pillar, looking curiously over their shoulders. Ruminative elders, kneeling on their forelegs, chewing on river weed brought from the Nile. Excitable camels, tugging at their halters. Bored camels, simply st anding around. Herds of camels, jostling one another. Solitary camels, staring at the ground.
Some are tied by a rope around their muzzle to a long cable pegged into the ground. Others are hobbled by their two front legs. But the preferred method of keeping a camel under control is to tie its left front calf up against the back of its thigh.
The reason for this, explains Muhammad Abdel All, one of the biggest dealers in the market, is that when camels get up, they put their weight on their left front leg first. If it is trussed, they cannot get up so quickly.
But even on three legs, camels can move swiftly, and every now and again one breaks loose as he is being inspected by a potential buyer.
Pandemonium ensues. When they are angry, obstreperous camels do a lot more than bray. They roar, they gargle, they snort, they growl, and when they are especially exasperated they let out a deep-bass whinny that can chill the blood.
A three-legged camel on the loose, careening around the confines of the Imbaba souk, is a sight to be seen. Merchants and their customers scatter; small boys bearing trays of sweet tea duck for cover when they can find it; and the rogue camel's handlers, hitching up their flowing robes, set off in loud pursuit, brandishing their bamboo canes and yelping as they lash the unfortunate animal's flanks.
Eventually, they get the beast under control, generally by pulling hard on the halter at one end, and even harder on the tail at the other. But not without a great deal of baring of teeth, which makes even the most experienced of handlers cautious.