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.

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.

The camel has two sets of canine teeth on either side of its mouth, on both its upper and lower jaw, making eight in all. "That makes his bite especially dangerous," says veterinary surgeon Dr. Rafik Nashed Helmy. "And when a camel is angry, he is very obstinate. Sometimes he is uncontrollable."

AS with horses, teeth are the best clue to a camel's age, and at the Imbaba market, where almost all the animals are destined for Cairo's ubiquitous kebab stalls, the most sought-after animals are those that still have their milk teeth, telling that they are only three years old.

Any camel older than five years is considered old - although in the wild they may live to be 25 - and is not likely to fetch more than 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about $300). A top-class camel may sell for three times that sum.

Mr. Abdel All, though educated to be a lawyer, says he never thought of taking up the law as a profession. "I've been around camels since I was a boy," he says. "My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather were all camel merchants."

A photograph on the wall of his otherwise unadorned office in the market suggests that he intends the family tradition to continue. The small boy with a bamboo cane standing by a camel, he explains, is his five-year-old son Ahmed. "When he has finished school and university, he will be a camel dealer, too," his father says proudly.

Abdel All comes from one of four families who almost completely control the Cairo camel market, where more than 1,000 head a week are sold in the busy winter months. He buys his animals from Sudanese merchants, who bought them from villagers who earn their livelihood raising camels in the grazing lands of Sudan, far to the south.

Then begins a remarkable journey, "the 40-day passage," as it is known. In herds 100 strong, the camels are walked through the desert by a lead herder and four camel hands for the six weeks it takes to reach the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt.

Sleeping by day and traveling by night, using the stars to guide them, these herders know the desert as well as they know their own villages. A lead herder earns that privilege only after having made 40 journeys; many of them can tell where they are merely by the feel of the sand in their fingers.

At Aswan, after a week's recuperation, the camels are put on freight trains and carried up the Nile to Cairo and the market, where Abdel All and his fellow merchants are waiting for them.

After a lifetime spent around camels, Abdel All has developed not only an instinctive knowledge of the value of each one, but also a soft spot for the ungainly beasts.

"Camels are loyal," he says. "They are like pets to me. And as a Muslim, I think you see the glory of God in a camel.

"His padded feet never sink into the sand; his long eyelashes keep the sand out of his eyes even in sand storms; his lower lip is split, so that he can eat even thorns. And he can go 60 days without eating or drinking."

At the same time, the dealer cannot afford to get too sentimental about the animals that he mainly sells to butchers, although a few go to farmers or to tourist operators.

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