Published: March 2nd 2009March 2nd 2009
Now, I’m just as eager to debunk stereotypes as the next girl, but in the words of my father, “What kind of a trip to Egypt doesn’t have camels?” So, I thought I’d come through in the camel department and tell you about the Birqash Camel Market.
There isn’t a beaten path for getting to Birqash (pronounced Bur-ausch), a village about an hour and a half outside of Cairo. To get to this small, sun-baked corner of Egypt, the most convenient thing to do is just to hire a taxi for the day to take you out there. Of course, my comerades and I decided to choose the more cost-efficient and decidedly less reliable (but oh so much more thrilling) option of taking a minibus. I should note that taking a bus here is nothing like taking the bus from Albany to Springfield, where riders are whisked from place to place stylishly and comfortably, where there are schedules, seat belts, paved roads, and curbsides without the occasional dead animal slumped on the side. The minibuses in Cairo are...airy...to put it generously. This is usually because there is a hole in the floor, because there's no glass in the windows, or
someone decided on an impromptu sunroof. But if you like roller coaster rides, ah! There's no better way to travel.
One of the most interesting parts of the trip was the actual process of finding the minibus. I acted as fearless leader (by process of elimination, it must be said, since it was upon my shoddy Arabic that we relied to find our way) and had the cab driver take us to Imbaba, where one could supposedly catch a bus to Birqash. Once we got there, our strategy became one of leaning over the road’s guardrail and shouting “BIRQASH!” as a minibus zipped by, our heads whipping comically along with its progress as we tried to project our voices over the bus’s pounding Egyptian pop so that the driver could hear us. After half a harrowing hour of this, I finally figured out from a driver that we needed to take a bus to a town called Paragil, and THEN get someone to drive us to Birqash. We did this on a bit of faith, and once we got to Paragil, waded through flocks of chickens, staring children and clucking mothers to get to our target bus, we convinced
the napping driver to take us to Birqash, wait for us, and drive us back for 40 Egyptian Pounds - about 8$. And this was overpaying.
The ride to Birqash was bumpy and fascinating, since it was the first time I had been able to leave the city of Cairo and see some of the more rural areas outside of the oppressive blanket of smog. I was particularly interested in seeing what the agricultural sphere was like, considering the fact that everyone is crammed onto the same slim strips of the fertile banks of the Nile. I’d heard that to remedy this, Egyptian farmers made interesting use of vertical space to farm, and I was interested in seeing how that worked. I didn’t see much of this vertical farming, but it was interesting to see how economical farmers were with their plots of land - with very few rows in between beds and sporatic trees parked right in the middle of the fields. To provide a root system? I’m not exactly sure, but it’s something I plan on exploring more while I’m here.
The more stimulating scenery started to emerge as we got closer to Birqash. At this
The brightest color in the whole market...
These greens are farmed and harvested by the ton, and is food for most of the liverstock in Cairo, and I suppose Egypt. The bright green color was shocking and beautiful against such a monochromatic background of dusty, dark yellows and browns
point, it was getting close to 10:30 in the morning, and the market ended at noon, with most of the intense haggling having already gone on between 7-9. Our anxiety mounted, in fear that we would get there and all the camels would be gone, once we started seeing flatbed trucks carrying 8 or 10 camels on its back trundle along in the opposite direction. This was exciting because it meant we were getting close, hilarious because the camels were looking around goofily, heads high, like dogs with their heads out the window, and nerve-wracking too - because what if we finally got there and all the camels had been trucked away! It felt childish, but we’d been awake since 6:30 trying to get to this place, and we’d be damned if we weren’t seeing some camels up close before the day was out. I just hoped it wasn’t going to have to be the last, oldest, lamest camel tied to a stake in some dusty yard, with all of the other camels having gone home.
Luckily for our camel dreams, we reached a mud-brick enclosure about 5 minutes later, turned a corner, and were greeted by the Holy
Birds of a feather
One of the funniest things was how similar the traders and their camels could look, sort of like how people say that pets and their owners eventually look the same. It was the exact same thing here! The camels faces were so expressive, sad and weathered and wry and sassy all at once. These are all experiences apparently echoed by their traders, because even the way they sat or looked out at the crowd was sometimes comically similar.
Grail of camels. I’m talking hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of tall and lumbering, silly and regal, jingle-jangle-walking, head-neck-swinging, long-lashed camels. Some were lined up along mud-brick walls, linked by cords threaded through their reigns, prizes from a long and arduous morning of haggling. Some of the traders were just sitting and smoking, flanked by these jostlingly snuggly beasts. Others were still bargaining, most were socializing, and many were herding camels one way or another towards their pens or tents. This was unfortunately achieved by beating the camels on the neck, hump, or head by thin, whippy, and certainly painful sticks.
It was difficult to watch some of the camels with gashes on their humps, the tracks of dried blood matted into their sweaty fur like burnt sienna. Still others had blood on their faces, all the more tragic as it stuck into their lovely long eyelashes. On the brighter side, camels abused such as these were in the minority, and though most were being hit with the sticks to herd them one way or another, most of them didn’t look much the worse for wear. I imagine more weak-stomached Westerners might have a difficult time at a place like this,
where animals are commodities bought and sold and treated as such… but talking to the traders, you begin to appreciate that this process is just a slice of a different kind of life, and has to be taken in that way. (At least we were past the dead camels on the side of the road....a lot of the weak or sickly ones who can't make it are just left there once they die, not being useful to anyone anymore. Except to the stray dogs I saw picking through their carcasses. That was a memorable sight and smell.)
I did see one trader being kind with a camel - it was extraordinarily sweet in such a rough environment. He had his face right up close to the camel's, stroking its muzzle and speaking softly to it. I’m assuming he wasn’t one of the traders buying camels for meat.
My Arabic was fortunately good enough that I could buddy up to interesting looking traders and ask them how things were going, trying to affect a schmoozy nonchalance like I’d done this a million times before…”No big deal,” I tried to affect, “I’m just, y’know, trading some camels. Same old, same
old,” and that sort of thing. I didn’t exactly achieve this, but the traders tended to be so shocked and delighted at my Arabic that they were happy to talk with me and tell me about their success or failures. Some even started gossiping about other traders with me… “Look at Ahmad’s herd over there…scrawny, as usual. Pshh. He clearly hasn’t been doing this as long as the rest of us. Hey, Mohammad, check out Amhad’s herd of little girls over there, hwaaa haa haa!”.
I also discovered that every trader I talked to happened to have bought the best camel. I guess objectivity isn’t the name of the game here. It was fascinating to learn from them where all of the camels actually came from...I spoke for a long time with a Sudanese man who brings his camels in a caravan across the border all the way to Birqash every month. Few come from Libya, so most are from the deserts of Egypt, Sudan, and some from the Sinai. I also learned that a healthy camel will be bigger, meatier, with a good solid hump and strong teeth. Now my herd will be the greatest of them all...
In addition to battle scars, most of the camels also had brands of some sort on their necks or humps to signify who their owner was. Some of the designs were quite creative and pretty (if you ignore the fact that it's, well, a brand)
There are more photos below