Egypt’s biggest camel market near Cairo
As we left the dusty concrete of Cairo’s outskirts behind us in the early morning haze, the mini bus driver replaced the calming tones of qur’anic recitation with the strident, impassioned voice of an Imam in full hellfire and brimstone mode. Of course the vast bulk of its meaning flew way over my humble understanding of arabic but with almost shouted exclamations concerning America and France I could be fairly sure he wasnt complimenting their local government finance policies. As a background ambiance it was hardly conducive to casual conversation with my fellow passengers but at least left me free to ponder the boundless variety of trash by the roadside, much of which seem to have been dredged from the clogged, greying depths of the watercourse beside us. The sermon had done nothing to diminish the driver’s cheery demeanour though and he dropped me off at the required spot with some jovial arm waving to point me in the right direction.
I was soon balancing in the pack of a pick up truck with a dozen weather-beaten farmers and smiling women, all but their round faces and hard-worked hands hidden in enveloping black. The presence of a weirdo foreigner, too poor or stupid to pay for a car and driver, like sensible tourists, clearly added novelty value to their routine journey.
As we bumped and lurched over the pot holes, the occasional pick up came towards us, camel’s heads peering like periscopes over the cab, seemingly unphased by the form of transport, mouths chewing nonchalantly. There was little doubt that our destination was near when the body of a camel lay ahead, the unnatural twist of its neck a clear indication of its sad demise. Birds had helped themselves to the choicest cuts, its bloody eye socket staring grimly into space (for sensitive animal lovers the picture is at the bottom of this blog so you don’t need to scroll over it unless you wish to).
One step inside the walled compound of the camel market and the dawn calm of the countryside exploded into a confusion of movement and sounds. Hundreds of camels, most with a foreleg bound up to inhibit escape bids, had little inclination to keep still. Dozens of bobbing heads like enormous ducks as they hobbled on three legs. With almost no prompting camels would launch themselves out of the crowd and frantic, stick waving bedouins would rush after them bellowing. Sticks contacted with heads, producing an almost stone like “clonk”, even blows to the sides sounded more like wood than leather. Clearly camels are made of hardy stuff. With countless animals either side of the track you had to be constantly on your guard for a lumbering beast that could still move with surprising speed, despite being one down on the leg count. The mass of a human is a paltry obstacle to a fully grown camel with agitated dreams of freedom on its mind. Unwary workers were barged aside but quite how no one was trampled under hoof I know not.
The beasts were brought out in ones and twos from herds in huge pens to be paraded in front of clumps of buyers. Maybe it was a combination of fear and irritation but the camels had no intention of acting out a sedate beauty pageant for the buyers and much head cracking and hide thwacking was in order to keep them in manageable confines. Unsurprisingly, several got halfway across the market before anyone had a chance to put a bid in. Mind you if I’d been crammed into a truck and brought all the way from Sudan, then repeatedly wacked by annoying men with big sticks I probably wouldn’t be in the mood to perform a catwalk show. The english expression “herding cats”, to denote an almost unmanageable task, repeatedly came to mind but cats don’t weigh over half a tonne. As for most animals in the country there is no concept of animal rights, they are simply property to be done with as you please and the stick and whip is never used sparingly.
The tension of the event had clearly got to some of the buyers and sellers, as on three occasions I saw discussions nearly come to blows. Cohorts would pull their angry friends back from the brink of flying fists with shouts of, “leave it Ahmed, he’s not worth it”, or some such arabic equivalent. At over $1000 each for a good example much was at stake.
Everyone was happy to chat, particularly over the obligatory breakfast of fuul – mashed fava beans, usually with tahini and oil is the staple, working man’s breakfast in Egypt. It was with equal measures of hospitality that my journey there and back was facilitated. The original transport instructions I’d been given turned out to be entirely bogus but every step of the way, on two buses, three pick ups and a train, friendly Egyptians ensured I was set off in the right direction and put onto the connecting transport. Waiting at the station for the return journey, entertaining a young girl with my stupidity and poor arabic, her niqab dressed mother was only too happy to chat. Only her eyes were on show but with those she smiled as brightly as her daughter’s laughter. In Egypt the journey is as much of an event as the destination.
DON’T GO ANY FURTHER IF YOU WISH TO AVOID LOOKING AT A PICTURE OF A DEAD CAMEL WITH ITS EYES PECKED OUT