AIthough camels are conspicuously absent from the streets of Cairo today, you can still find them in the camel market at Imbaba. Lying at the northwest edge of the city, it is the final destination of camels that come from as far away as Somalia and Sudan to be sold there every Friday.
Arriving at the market very early, you will find the mist from the fields burning off, adding a surreal warping to the already awkward shapes of hundreds of camels. The first impression is a confused scene of humans in various states of repose - a few chasing animals in circles - and of camels equally in repose, standing, sitting or half standing and half sitting. The brownish colors of these "ships of the desert," ranging from dark coffee to nearly white, blend with the white robes of their Sudanese keepers and the green of the camels' birseem, their fodder of Egyptian clover.
No trading seems to be going on. The camels are continuously chewing, moving their jaws to left and right in a slow but sure rhythm, and the men - there are very few women there - sit and drink their tea or smoke their homemade water pipes in no particular hurry. The atmosphere is one of coexistence.
As the sun clears up the mist and one's mind, this living tableau takes on the trappings of a veritable market. Amid the animal sounds one begins to hear the language of bargaining, and the visual confusion resolves to reveal some understandable organization. The camels are not a hodgepodge, generic collection: There are distinguishable and important varieties. There are big and small, dark and light, old and young, Somali, Sudanese and Egyptian camels, pack camels and meat camels, cheap camels and expensive camels. They are separated into different herds that belong to different owners, and the men who seemed to be chasing the camels for fun, or at least at random, turn out to be trying to keep the herds apart.
Most camels are branded, freehand, with the mark of the owner and can thus be traced; others have numbers painted on them. And what seemed at first to be a number of three-legged camels - "Strange breed they have here," one visitor commented - turns out to be normal four-legged beasts each with one leg tied up as a way of hobbling it. The hobble doesn't seem to bother the more athletic animals, though, who leap and run in a weird combination of lurching movements that is nonetheless sufficient to keep four or five men busy running to corner them. A hitching wire awaits the determinedly venturesome: They are tied to it to spare everyone a havoc-wreaking, chase-around-the-market scene that sends vendors of rope and tack and brass bells searching on the ground and in their neighbors' stalls for their own scattered wares.
Comprehension brings more questions: How much does a camel cost? "Which one?" is the amused response. You can expect to pay anywhere between $500 and $2000. The Somali camels seem by far the most regal, and they are the most expensive. Looking down with their beautiful dark eyes from their height of 2½ to 3 meters (8 to 10 feet) above the ground, they seem to regard humans as inferior beings, hardly worth considering. Perhaps abashed, the keepers show respect for Somali camels, leaving them alone most of the time and refraining from pushing them around. Given this privileged treatment, these are relatively serene camels, chewing their cud with less agitation than the others in the market.
Somali camels are transported by truck all the way from Somalia - 2750 kilometers (1700 miles) at least - and are fed the best birseem. Their owners show the same kind of pride in their stock as a farmer whose steer has won first place in the county fair, and at least one even knows his camels by name.
Sudanese camels are more within the price range of the average shopper. They travel less comfortably, making the 1500-kilometer (900-mile) trek to Imbaba by walking through the desert all the way from Sudan. They arrive with their humps much diminished, their fat reserves used up, and a look of hard use and faded majesty. Yet they are known to be strong animals that can carry very heavy loads over a fairly long haul.
The Egyptian camels tend to be smallest in size and the least beautiful, in the camel sense of the word. Their color is not the rich and dark brown of the Somali breed, but more of a dusty white; their teeth are yellower and their skin is more wrinkled. Their legs are shorter and fatter than those of the Somali camels, whose muscles are well defined.
Who buys camels in this age of cheap Japanese trucks? Fewer and fewer people - yet enough to keep this market stocked with hundreds of camels. Most of them, particularly the young ones, are bought by farmers who cannot afford the trucks for the transportation of agricultural produce. Theirs are the legs that are often all that is visible beneath the slowly moving mountains of grass that one sees alongside rural roads in the Delta and Upper Egypt. Older camels are supposedly slaughtered for meat, although camel steaks do not appear on any menus in Egypt, so one is not sure where this meat is being sold. And unlike in the Arabian Peninsula, very few camels, if any, are sold for racing.
Despite their differences, the camels do have their strange haircuts in common. Some are shaved except for a Mohawk strip of hair that is sometimes painted red or orange. Others have lines of shaved hair running in patterns all over their bodies: zig-zags, circles or diagonal lines. A few others have their heads shaved and what seems like a beard left under their gyrating chins. In this, the owners are cultivating not a punk culture among camels, but rather their own commercial interests: The cut hair eventually makes its way into camel-hair coats and jackets in shop windows on Bond Street or Fifth Avenue - or Shari' Sitteen in Jiddah, for in the Arab world too a cloak, or bisht, of camel hair is considered a luxury. Shaving the camels is thus another, and a renewable, source of income for their owners.
Camel buyers and sellers always use the services of a middleman, who literally stands between buyer and seller, holding hands with both. A tug of war ensues as bargaining begins, with both buyer and seller feigning reluctance to deal and tugging to free their hands from the middleman's. The middleman tries to bring their hands together to seal the agreement, and he is assisted by kibitzers who urge buyer and seller together, calling out their own comments on the camels - and the humans - involved in the sale and physically pushing the parties closer together from behind. Numbers fly back and forth, crossing in midair with agonized refusals, pronounced with many an a'uth billahl -God forbid! - or literally "I take refuge in God." Buyer and seller each express shock and incredulity at the other's offers.
After half an hour to an hour, the deal is sealed with a handshake at a price not too far from the one that all three parties had in mind to begin with, and the difficult task begins of loading the camel onto a small pickup truck. The tugging, pulling and stumbling of humans and animal are immense: Legs stick out at all angles, the men's faces turn a deep red with exertion, and the pickup itself creaks and moans as the struggle shifts back and forth in the truck bed. All through the procedure, the camel imitates an immovable object and protests loudly at the indignity, thus keeping up the tradition of stubborness, independence of character and pure resistance that the species is famous for. In the end, however, it is safely couched in the truck, just filling the bed, with its head, still groaning and bawling, peering over the cab or the tailgate.
Despite being known as a camel market, Imbaba is also the place for trade in donkeys, donkey tack and trappings, colorful donkey carts, sheep and goats, and the army-surplus clothes that the Sudanese or Somali cameleers need on the many cold desert nights of their trek north to Cairo. In Imbaba's donkey section, salesmen invite you to test-ride the latest donkey by running it up and down a path already crowded with vendors and their merchandise, as well as with other donkeys. In such an unlikely place they demonstrate their wares, racing around corners, putting the donkey brakes on and bounding on and off. One almost expects a demonstration of the donkey stereo after all the descriptions of praiseworthy donkey features! But that may be the only accessory unavailable there: Laid out for sale are tinkling bells, bright red saddle cloths, ropes, chains, harnesses and painted carts - all for sale in Imbaba.
Moving from one scene to another like a visitor in a Breughel painting, the unhurried browser will find time for a cup of tea from the makeshift tea-houses scattered around the market. Sitting on wooden benches whose rough edges have been smoothed by thousands of past Fridays, it is a joy to run your eyes over the texture of this piece of Egyptian life.
Relaxing with the strong tea, one can fall into conversation with the cameleers, desert cowboys who can tell stories for hours about their adventures "out there." Most of the stories have been embellished - or so one hopes - but it is still enchanting to hear of their travels. This is particularly true of those who try to dodge the border patrols between Sudan and Egypt to avoid paying import duties on the camels. They take a long and roundabout path north, risking their lives by routing themselves past very few watering holes and over many long stretches of sand. On their faces you can see the treks that have hardened their skin into leathery wrinkles, but underneath their toughness there is a character that is warm and friendly. It shows itself in the smiles that often break across their faces while recounting episodes of their travels.
As the morning passes and the air gets warmer, a new element is introduced to the spectacle of sight and sound: that of smell. At first it is mostly the inoffensive smell of animals, particularly camels, that permeates the air, but then little by little, breaths of dry hay and green birseem mix into the layers of air already thick with aromas. The puffs of smoke coming out of the many water pipes add a smell of tobacco sweetened with honey, and there is also the flinty, clean smell of the desert trek emanating from the white and blue robes of the cameleers. All combine to produce a unique condensed and concentrated essence that clings to one's clothes, providing an olfactory signature of the camel market at Imbaba.
Can you smell it too?
Akram Khatcr, born in Lebanon, is working toward a doctorate in Middle Eastern history at the University of California at Berkeley. He has lived in Egypt and Senegal.