Backstory: The camel tout is as eternal as the pyramids

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

From time immemorial, tourists from Pliny the Elder to Napoleon Bonaparte have arrived at Giza's great pyramids only to be confronted in their majestic shadows by cries of "My friend! My friend!" from hoards of irritating, persistent camel touts intent on selling them a ride on their ungainly "ships of the desert." It's among every visitor's top 10 complaints about the country. Mark Twain, visiting in 1866, remarked that the pyramids' tourists have "suffered torture that no pen can describe." But let's give it a shot.

From the moment your taxi pulls onto the stretch of chaotic highway leading to the pyramids, you're a sitting target. Multitudes of teenage boys, employed by nearby stables, waylay taxi drivers, hammering on the hoods of cars and sticking their heads through open windows. "You need camel? Cheap price. Pay us, and entry to pyramids free!" This, of course, is one of the oldest scams in the book. And the assault by the touts, tricksters, and pushy salesmen continues up the steep hill to the pyramids' ticket office.

The camel touts who do infiltrate the fenced pyramids enclosure itself - a core group of around 20, comprised mostly of friends and family allegiances - are not as pushy as their sharkish counterparts outside. They work alone, sidling in and dotting themselves about the foot of the great Cheops Pyramid.

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"Like a photo with camel?" they inquire quietly. "How about desert ride?"

But smart white-suited tourist police, also mounted on camels, won't tolerate such solicitation, and thus repeat one curious ritual from dawn to dusk. Every half hour or so, a policeman spurs his snoozing steed into action, and lollops around the pyramid's base, chasing the touts away. The touts' camels reel and totter on their huge, two-toed feet, before breaking into an ungainly sprint as they disappear behind the nearest sandbank in a cloud of dust. Minutes later, they reappear and it all begins again.

These touts are as much a part of the history of the pyramids as the limestone blocks themselves. As long as there have been tourists, they've been here. It's a profession handed down from father to son, and despite being feared or loathed by many visitors, most, like Wallid el-Kerim, love their work.

Easygoing Mr. Kerim, born and bred in the backstreets of Giza, is one of those for whom the job is a family heirloom. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all stood in the same hot, barren spot for years on end, making ends meet by tempting travelers into camel rides.

Kerim has worked at the pyramids (8 to 5, seven days a week) since he was 13. He bought his camel, Moses - a handsome (as camels go) and even-tempered beast - two years ago with his entire life savings of 7,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,200) at the Birqash Camel Market, where camel trains are brought in across the desert from Sudan, to be sold for work, transport, and meat. He trained the unbroken Moses for several intensive weeks in the desert, teaching the creature how to kneel to allow riders to mount, how to wear a bridle and respond to commands, and, most important, how to wait patiently for long hours in the ferocious Egyptian sun. It seems to have worked: Moses is placid and obliging, defying camels' typical image as unpredictable, grumpy creatures with a penchant for biting unsuspecting bystanders.

"He's a business camel!" grins Kerim.

The man and his camel are inseparable, vying each day for enough money to support Kerim's elderly mother, who, following the death of his father, Galal, seven years ago, was left penniless. Although he has a total of 16 brothers and sisters, all the others married off young, leaving Kerim to care for his mother.

But, he says breezily, "I'm not in a hurry to get married. I'm not crazy!"

***

On a recent afternoon under a baking sun, Kerim, dressed in a gray jellabah and Nike baseball cap, sits smiling atop Moses.

"It's a difficult job," he admits, scanning the crowded area for business. "The guys outside work on 50 percent commission from the stables, so they're competitive and pushy, which makes people hate us, too. The police are harder than they used to be, especially when important people visit. But, God gives you luck!"

Conversely, rivalry among the individual camel touts, he says, is almost nonexistent: all know each other, most are related, and the group quickly ousts "bad men."

Having attended school only for a few early years before accompanying his father on the job, Kerim learned English, in which he's proficient, solely from his contact with tourists. "Et je parle Français," he adds, "Español, Italiano."

Work is not always steady, he says. From June to October, at Christmas and at Easter, the tourist trade is burgeoning, but the rest of the year is slow. Also, he says, terrorism both in Egypt and abroad can cause tourism to dwindle for several months following an attack. But, he says, the tourists always make their way back again.

In many ways, however, life is not as easy as it once was. "My father," recalls Kerim, "had four camels. But now you can only buy one for the same price. Stabling, food, and vet bills are all expensive." (Moses chomps his way through large quantities of hay, beans, and alfalfa daily.)

On a good day, Kerim might manage to procure five rides from tourists, but he allows that there are days when there are none at all.

He uses the soft-sell approach: "I ask 'where do you come from? How many days you stay here?' I never try to force someone." Though he seems immune to people brushing him off rudely, Kerim admits that it's hard to keep up a smile all day long. On average, he makes 30 or 40 Egyptian pounds ($5 to $7) per ride, and on this income he, his mother, his camel, his horse (everyday transport here) and her new foal survive. "Some people pay much more," he says. "But you never know who it'll be. The smart man with the expensive camera might pay badly, but the one in the old jeans and scruffy T-shirt will surprise you. But money or no money, we always find a way to eat. Inshallah."

At day's end, when the heat dies to a mild sizzle, and tourists begin to thin out, Moses, Kerim, and his camel-driver friend Heisin Muhamedand his steed, Charlie Brown, head for home. The two camels know their way through the maze of backstreets and plod faithfully ahead. Mr. Muhamed it seems, has had a windfall: A Korean tourist popped for a generous sum. Kerim hasn't had a bad day, either: "One German, one Dutch, one English tourist. All very friendly, pay OK."

After dropping the camels at a flyblown stable, from which a young boy rushes out to tether, feed, and groom them, they head back to Kerim's tiny apartment. There's a family gathering going on. Two of his sisters and seemingly dozens of small children are squeezed into one of three minuscule rooms, eating a meal cross-legged on the floor. One disappears as Kerim enters and returns with a tray of fragrant mint tea. Despite the old furniture, neon-tube lighting, and bare walls, the house rings with laughter, which mingles with the tinny strains of an old TV.

Only once in his life did Kerim leave Giza, he recalls, to work as a camel driver for a stable on the Red Sea, near Hurghada. "I was there for seven months and the pay was good. But I missed everything about home. My family, my friends. I was working for someone else, making money for someone else. That kind of life is not for me."

And as Wallid el-Kerim looks up at a framed photo of his father on the wall, he seems to be reminded: "I feel lucky to have work. This profession [is] my destiny. I've met friends from all over the world. And if I get money or not, at least, like my father, I do it all by myself."

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