|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
26 July - 1 August 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Beware the tourists
"The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and all willing to prove it... Some were of a soft mouse color, and the others were white, black and varicolored. Some were close-shaven all over, except that a tuft like a paintbrush was left on the end of their tails. Others were so shaven in fanciful garden patterns as to mark their bodies with curving lines, which were bounded on one side by hair and on the other by the close plush left by the shears. They had all been newly barbered and were exceedingly stylish." This is what Mark Twain had to say about Egyptian donkeys when visiting in 1867.
Today, tourists no longer ride donkeys on their sightseeing tours, and their owners consequently do not need to barber and groom them. Foreign visitors are thus treated to the daily spectacle of these descendants of the "indescribably gorgeous" creatures, being beaten, overworked, starved and abused in any conceivable way. To anyone objecting to the incredible cruelty with which the poor animals are treated, the answer is invariably the same: "But the owner himself is poor and mistreated, how can he know any better?" But he does, as he did over a century ago, when he wasn't any richer, but knew that his livelihood depended primarily on the aspect and health of his mount. The point is that, whether pampered or battered, the donkey will still pull the garbage cart and take the watermelons to market until he drops.
The story of Goha, who fed his donkey a little less every day until he gave him nothing at all, and then complained when the animal died, comes to mind -- nowhere more than at Brookes Hospital, the benevolent British institution and practically the only veterinary clinic in Cairo specialising in the care of large working animals, which are treated free of charge when their owners, finally alarmed by the possibility of being deprived definitively of their victim and therefore of their livelihood, decide to take them there. Still, not many do it of their own accord. A few years ago, I witnessed a curious scene in one of the remote streets of Maadi: A woman and her son were pushing and pulling a stumbling donkey, trying to hide it in the bushes. "Did we lose them?" the woman kept asking her son. The son was looking back in terror then, with guttural cries, urging his mother to hurry. They obviously belonged to one of the tribes of semi-nomads who live around Maadi and roam the area with their herds of goats.
What were they doing, hiding their donkey? Intrigued, I stopped. "Help us," the woman wailed, "someone has called the [Brookes] hospital and they are coming after us with their big car to take our donkey away." I tried to reason with the screaming woman, explaining that the donkey would be attended to then returned to her, but she shook her head wildly. "He is too old, he only has a little energy left and we want to use him until we can gather the money to buy another donkey." This case is not exceptional. Hundreds of overworked donkeys die of exhaustion in Cairo every day. I can think of Ashraf, one of the zabbalin who still stops on our street with his two limping, worn out donkeys. We paid for him to take his animals to the clinic. The next day, he was back collecting empty cartons from the two supermarkets on the street. He offered us a cock and bull story as an excuse for having not taken the animals to the clinic, but indicated that he was not adverse to extracting more money "to give the donkeys an extra good feed that will put them right in no time."
Amina Abaza buys abused donkeys from their owners, transports them to Brookes for treatment then puts them to pasture on her farm where they can live and graze in peace. Unfortunately, not many people have the time or place to emulate her or assist her in her lonely struggle. Many friends are liberal with their criticism, on the other hand. "What difference do thirty or forty donkeys saved make?" they often ask her. "They are not worth the trouble you are putting yourself through. Why not open an orphanage?"
The point is that Amina's actions are not coldly calculated. The suffering that humans visit on the animal realm can either wrench your heart or leave you completely cold. It is really a matter of education and culture. The different attitudes are learned and can be observed to run in families and communities. Donkeys lost their status when their appearance stopped being a crucial factor in their value as a money-making tool.
Their only chance now lies in the hope that the authorities will finally wake up and understand that our reputation as a civilised country is at stake: if tourists of old were thrilled by the appearance of the frisky little beasts, they are aghast at the treatment meted out to them nowadays and are bound to talk or write about it abundantly when they return home. Our cruelty to animals may yet overshadow the splendour of our monuments.
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