Birqash Camel Market: Meeting the King of Kings

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The man surveys the scene before him with an air of royalty. Dressed in an elegant, dark grey galabeya, he wears shades on his tanned, worn face and tiger skin shoes upon his feet that, he is quick to reassure me, are real. He looks far younger than his age of sixty. Yet, alongside his youthful appearance, it is also evident that he has witnessed many decades of Egyptian life. I take a seat next to him; he asks my name and offers me a cigarette. We sit in companionable silence, the smoke curling into the dusty air, as the chaos unfolds before our eyes.

The chaos is a camel market: Egypt’s biggest, located in the tiny village of Birqash, 35km northwest of Cairo. Despite its proximity to the urban sprawl, this is a land entirely unlike the jungle of the capital. Hundreds of camels that have been relocated as far as Western Sudan and Somalia are the focus, as the sale and trade dominate this sandy terrain. It is another world to the commotion of the city, and Mohamed Abd is its king.

Gazing on the spectacle, I am yet to stop beaming at this new realm that I have stumbled across. There is something magical here, and it goes beyond my newfound love for camels. Mohamed looks at me questioningly, bemused by my obvious enjoyment of his everyday motions. I simply shrug, my grin widening. And he returns it with ease, chuckling to himself.

The air is packed with dust and hollering as both men and camels sprint past, brandishing sticks above their heads, grey and white galabeyas flying with their pursuit. Boys join the chase, a fearless, giggling tangle swept up by the charged atmosphere.

It is not always a pretty sight; the sticks make a sickeningly heavy thudding sound as they meet the camels’ bodies; with one leg tied, the animals are forced to lollop and cannot stray far; their hide is marked with deep scars, and dark red blood stains the most rebellious of the creatures. However, I cannot pass judgement. It would be easy to frown upon the treatment of these beasts, exotic and majestic in my eyes. Yet in reality, there is little difference between the traditions of the market and the farming industry in my home land. The majority of us think nothing of buying produce originating from slaughterhouses and battery hen farming. Contrastingly, a respect between man and animal lies within the market’s traditions; there is a reliance on these camels for their livelihood and the community here knows it. This is a life that has existed for many generations, before Mohamed’s time, passed down from his grandfather’s great grandfather. Merely an onlooker to this aging custom, I simply savour the preservation of this way of life throughout decades of Egyptian families.

As I watch the pandemonium of the market unfold, I come to the realisation that order exists within the chaos, and Mohamed Abd is ensuring this. Everyone knows him, going out of their way to approach our perch, greet him and shake his hand. It is evident that he is highly respected, despite my minimal understanding of Arabic. This is confirmed when he invites me for tea and leads the way into a pleasant, whitewashed building which, I later discover, is the office of the market; the noise subsides and it is nicely cool out of the sun’s glare. Tea is brought, as he talks about his daughter of a similar age to myself and produces her thesis on the impact of the January 25 revolution upon the camel market. This place feels a world apart from the revolutions that have claimed Cairo’s streets over recent years. A separate system seems to govern this landscape, which is verified when I ask Mohamed whether business has now improved, four years after the initial uprisings.

“Sisi, Morsi, Mubarak… it makes no difference to us. We have our own laws.”

I have no doubt of the detached regulations ruling this quarter at a wave of Mohamed’s hand. However, his daughter disagrees. The increase in oil prices, alterations to export/import regulations, and the subsequent rise in camel prices, seem to have had a big impact upon the market. As I read his daughter’s words, I learn that even this sphere, revolving at its own pace to the distinctly contrasting beat of clashing sticks, has been affected by the turmoil that swept through Egypt over the past four years.

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