Backstory: The camel tout is as eternal as the pyramids
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.