Traders cater to tourists, trekkers, and those with an exotic palette
CAIRO: Abdul Hakim has his camels to thank. After 40 years of buying and selling them, he was able to move from Said and buy a house in Cairo, support his family of five, and send one of his sons to Cairo University.
“But you must not grow attached to your camels, otherwise you won’t be able to sell them, he said rather affectionately.
On a Friday morning, the camel souq in Birqash, a 30-minute drive from Cairo, is alive with buyers and sellers out to make a profit from Egypt’s beloved beast. Hakim prices his camels for about LE 4,000-8,000, and sells about 15 per week with a profit of LE 300-1,000 per sale. The cash comes in installments though, as middle-men have yet to sell the camel to other buyers.
With a hint of pride, Hakim talks about his son who is taking a course on business administration. “He does not like to work with camels, he said. Hakim himself was born into the business, inheriting it from his father.
The camels in Birqash come all the way from Sudan, on a 15-day caravan which takes them to Shalatin, a city near Aswan, after which they are herded in trucks and brought to this Cairo suburb. Sudan has one of the largest camel populations in the world. They are found mainly in the arid areas of the country, where the average rainfall is less than 350 millimeters per year. Officially, 50,000 camels are transported from Sudan, but many more pass through illegal routes. Some camels are even taken from Somalia.
Compared to horses which are temperamental, sometimes sickly and need a lot of care, camels are low maintenance. Though they eat a lot, their simple diet comprises only of hay and leaves, and they are famed for going on days without drinking. They also stay calm most of the time. To prevent them from running around the field and disturbing other camels, one leg must be tied and kept immobile, a bizarre sight for visitors. On some occasions, a three-legged camel can be seen impatiently hobbling around, an even more bizarre sight.
Hardly any tourist leaves Egypt without hopping on a camel. Thanks to this stereotype, camels are in high demand among desert tour operators, especially in the Giza Pyramids, the Bahareya Oasis or Sinai. “Thin camels have stronger resistance and are good runners. They are usually ideal for riding, Hakim said. A “work camel costs LE 5,000.
Though overweight camels are not good for ferrying tourists around, they are still in demand for their meat, which comprises a smaller portion of the trade. These camels go for up to LE 8,000 each, priced higher because they must be fed. Camel meat is sold in select markets for LE 25 per pound and said to be good for kofta. Baby camels are even better-tasting, according to Hakim, and a three-month old camel usually fetches about LE 3,000.
Manned by glib traders in their galabeyas and turbans, the Birqash camel souq harks back to one of Egypt’s oldest enterprises. Dating back to the seventh century, Arab merchants crossed the Dar Al-Arbain (Forty Days Road), stretching from Darfur to Asiut, with slaves in chain and cargoes of ivory and spices. These caravans also saw the beginnings of exporting camels, back then the most reliable means of land transportation, when railroad tracks and ferry services had not been developed.
Despite the decreased reliance on camels for transportation, business in the Birqash camel souq still thrives, with up to 1000 camels sold each day. Buyers bargain down prices, and traders confer in hushed tones, deciding whether a certain amount is indeed the best price the camel could muster. A camel more than 10 years old is usually no good for working and ends ups being sold for meat.
Once a bargain is struck, the humped beasts are whipped and herded into the trucks. Looking helpless and anxious, they await their fate, which takes them either to the desert or to the butcher.
Mohammed, 10 years old, whips the camels expertly, even as the towering creatures dwarf his four-foot frame.
“I go to school during the week, but when I have time I help my father with the work, he said. Many children work in the souq on weekends, learning the tricks of the trade from their fathers.
As long as 4×4’s don’t eclipse camels as the means of trekking around the desert, and as long as exotic taste buds continue to crave for camel kofta, the souq will most likely stay in business and Mohammed will surely have something to inherit.
Entrance fee to the Birq’ash Camel Market is LE 20/person and LE 10 for use of camera.