Injy El-Kashef gets close and personal with the Arabs' most favourite creature
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For these Egyptian children, a camel ride is more than just fun -- it is a conquest that also spells identity. Saddling up at Fustat Wadi El Gemal
"Do you know how to make the camel sit?" asked the little prince rhetorically, unaware of the pride shimmying in his eyes. Which pride made it clear, nonetheless, that he had only just acquired this knowledge himself. "You must say 'Khhhhhhhh! Khhhhhhhh!' And to make him rise you must say 'Sssssssss! Sssssssss!'," he boasted, delirious with excitement at having broken some code of animal speech -- and not just any animal, for that matter; this was no rabbit or tortoise, after all, but, at an average height of 2.5 metres, one of the largest mammals alive on the face of the planet, no less.
At six years of age, it was no mean feat to have interacted so closely with a creature Arabs, Egyptian or otherwise, seldom meet face to face, even despite its deeply symbolic stance in the culture of the region. Think about it: the "ship of the desert", as camels are often nicknamed, is among the first images that come to mind in the collective Western subconscious when the word "Arab" is spoken. It is the animal depicted in most pictorial representations of this part of the world to lure tourists: a camel against the backdrop of the pyramids; a camel treading the sands by moonlight; camels trailing a caravan of riches across the arid dunes... How many times have Arab children in the West heard the question, "Do you go to school on camel back?" Annoying though it may be, the question -- far from an instance of racism -- betrays genuine curiosity. For, the world map, to children, is rather like a zoo; and the more impressive the animal associated with a country, the more curiosity the said country will engender.
That no camels (or horses for that matter) are allowed on the pyramids plateau seems almost sacrilegious. How, but how? The Supreme Council of Antiquities' Mohamed Megahed told Al-Ahram Weekly that this ban was issued by the council about 10 years ago, but that "violations cannot be controlled because many of those who rent camels by the pyramids have a license to do so." What about all those thousands of tourists heeding the call of advertisements based on this very image, though? The SCA has deemed the ban necessary on the premise that the Giza Plateau could do without the filth of animals. Someone needs to take care of that Western collective subconscious, whatever the case, and perhaps replace the image of the camel by the pyramids with a coke-vending machine or something; otherwise thousands of tourists will be sorely disappointed when that once-in-a-lifetime experience at the foot of the Great Pyramids, should the ban be better implemented, exclude a camel ride. And we wouldn't want to upset those tourists, now, would we?
The most annoying aspect of this ban is that camels aren't even filthy animals to begin with. Endowed with three stomachs, their digestive system operates much like a cow's, and their 34 sharp teeth go on chewing on that regurgitated cud for hours on end before it is sent on its way out as camel dung, which, incidentally, has the unique attribute of being ready for use as fire fuel before it has even dried. Nor do camels lack any manners with their drinking habits. The proverbial "cactus" of the animal kingdom, they can go for up to a week without a drop of water; yet, once offered some, will have the appetite to gulp down as much as 100 litres in 10 minutes -- and be gracefully off.
Let us quickly add here that, contrary to myth, camels do not store water in their humps -- humps are for storing fat reserves on which they draw when nourishment is sparse -- but in their bloodstream. Centuries of adaptation to the harshness of desert life have actually endowed them with a unique water conservation biological mechanism allowing them to shed up to 40 per cent of their body weight without distress. Should the need arise, the camel will use the fat stored in its hump to compensate for lack of food and/or drink on longer desert journeys, sometimes arriving at its destination with its hump, diminished and wrinkled, hanging loosely over its back from fatigue. But this is a resilient creature if ever there was one: even the sorriest looking hump will regain its upright form and firmness following a good meal and some rest.
One of the more incredible notions about camels (to this day, unsupported by scientific evidence, though a firm belief of many a camel trainer) is that they see humans seven times their real size -- which would indicate that their gentle, patient nature is not the only reason they have adapted so well to domestication, but also the factor that every human, to every camel, is in fact a giant. Definite proof that camels were domesticated in the ancient world became available in 1912. Near Aswan, a rock painting was discovered showing a man pulling a camel on a rope, not to mention seven hieroglyphic inscriptions dated to the sixth dynasty (2320-2150 BC), which present conclusive evidence that Egypt had domesticated camels as early as 2200 BC, at the latest.
Wild camels are few, for no desert dweller who can slip a rope around a camel will miss the opportunity to do so: they signify transportation, milk, wealth, stature, a potential bride's dowry (once upon a time, the Pharaoh of Egypt offered Abraham camels, among other presents, for the sake of Sarah, whom he wanted to marry) and, eventually, leather, wool and meat. Yet turning a wild camel into a domesticated one is no easy task. These creatures have a docility that in no way translates into weakness, and their patience is a direct result of pride. Any self-respecting camel will only throw a fit for a very good reason -- and only after every other option has failed -- or if its master breaks its heart. According to top zoologist Ibrahim Helmy, camels should be treated with respect and without the abuse of repetitive or unnecessary beatings, for they are endowed with a good memory and a sensitive disposition:
"I have lost a friend, Amm Nasser, with whom I went through much of the Eastern desert on camel back. He often beat his camel harshly, and I warned him, time and time again, that he would regret it as camels will not suffer such humiliation. One night, Amm Nasser's offended camel simply crouched on his sleeping master, suffocating him, and bit him to death."
In the Nile Valley, camels are treated with a reserve akin to fear: only one person mans the camels, and the relationship is often one of back and forth bickering along the average 25 years of a camel's active life as a beast of burden, rather than one governed by mutual respect. In the Western Desert, however, and moving upward toward the Arabian peninsula, it is established, pretty early on in the affair, who is master; this is done firmly, without cruelty.
Who are the best trainers of riding camels in the Arab world? The answer is: the Bisharyyin, one of the three main sub-groups of the Beja ethnic tribe originating in Sudan (the other two Beja being the Hadendowa and the Amarar), their sporadic settlements populating the arid plains of Egypt's southern desert and Jebel Elba region. Of Hamitic origin, and speaking a language defined as Te-Badawoui, these are the very same people Rudyard Kipling referred to as the "Fuzzy Wuzzy", and the Romans as the "Blemmyes". The inhospitable environment they inhabit has kept Bisharyyin culture immune to outside influences, and their civilisation remains virtually unchanged since its first recorded history began nearly four thousand years ago. Their outstanding skill in camel training has earned them a worldwide reputation among camel riders as the crème de la crème of this art -- simply the best in the world.
The construction of the Aswan Dam had inundated areas that constituted important pastures for the Bisharyyin, and the result was massive impoverishment for this branch of the Beja, as well as forced relocation of a substantial number of their population. At the tented ecolodge of Fustat Wadi El Gemal -- in the Protectorate of Wadi Al-Jemal near Marsa Alam, not far from Egypt's Sudanese frontier -- a community of Bisharyyin was contracted by the management to shoulder the responsibility of the camels bred, trained and kept on camp. Eissa Ahmed Sherif, the finest trainer among the Fustat-dwelling Bisharyyin, explained to the Weekly how the delicate process goes.
For the first two years of its existence, the camel calf is left to its mother, feeding off her milk and her care without human intervention. As its third year begins, the calf is then attached by a short rope to its mother's neck for several weeks during which it is assisted in the process of weaning as the length of the rope does not allow it to reach the mammary glands. It is forced to graze on what she grazes, and to dwell wherever she dwells, learning the plants to avoid and the areas to tread, among other skills. In the process, the calf slowly becomes eased into the notion of a rope controlling its movement, introduced into its life through attachment to its own mother long before the trainer has even held the rope in his hand.
This gradual process of conditioning to the rope is then hammered into its memory by a once-in-a-lifetime painful process that is never repeated again, and which is sufficient to mark the calf's memory for life. The rope will be attached around its head firmly for the average duration of three days, depending on the temperament and disposition of each individual calf. Its head remains wrapped by the cord (constructed of camel wool or leather) until it is painfully engorged, and the slightest tug will force the animal to move in the direction the rope leads it to in order to avoid the pain. The rope is then untied as the conditioning process is completed, and the calf allowed to recuperate from the trauma of the experience, back to its mother's side.
From then on, even without any significant pressure being applied to the rope tied around its jaw, the calf is ready to graduate to phase two of the training process, as it learns to recognise the sounds instructing it to obey specific commands. The most important aspect of this training period is for the rider to exert as little pressure (physical or psychological) as possible, the objective being to teach the animal to obey without breaking its pride. The process is a lengthy one, requiring much patience and self-control on the rider's part, and, most importantly, it is one that can only be deemed successful if respect and trust come to govern the relationship between the animal and its rider. After all, Sherif is quick to explain, another sobriquet for a camel is Ata Allah, literally "God's gift".
For these Egyptian children, a camel ride is more than just fun -- it is a conquest that also spells identity