Photos by the author
Cairo is quiet on Friday mornings, but 21 miles to the west, in Birqash, the camel marketplace is buzzing from the break of dawn.
When I visited recently, I could hear sticks as they whipped through the air and cracked on strained, burdened flesh. The beasts nearly trampled passersby as they attempted to escape beatings. It looked chaotic, but the camel drivers knew what they were doing. Bidders—mostly butchers, some collectors, a few illegal racers who operate in Sinai—entered in droves. The way in wasn't pretty. It smelled putrid. Camel corpses were strewn in small piles. They had survived the 40-day journey from Somalia and Sudan only to expire here.
"If a camel is sick," one camel seller said, "it's easier to kill it before it makes the others sick as well." Nearby, a dead animal festered, its neck cleanly, deeply slit.
Sellers normally control the camels by tying their legs together in sets of three or four. Hitting one forces the group to trot ahead, but sometimes the camels try to run away and the drivers stop them by surrounding them with sugar cane batons raised in the air. The camels that don't do as they're told get hit harder.
"Dance! Dance!" one boy shouted as he and two others struck a camel. It bayed in pain as the preteens laughed, twisting left, then right, and eventually spinning as it was driven against a wall. Having one leg tied up didn't make it any easier. The father of one of the boys said they hit it so the bidders could see the camel from every angle. "But really only the teeth matter," he said. "Check the teeth, and you'll know if the camel is healthy."
A single hole-in-the-wall eatery in the marketplace served mashed fava beans and ta'amiya (falafel), staples of the Egyptian diet. A few men sat in the shade and sipped cups of tea as they traded stories from the camel route. Visitors yelled out bids: Adults go for around 11,000 Egyptian pounds (a little more than $1,500); juveniles are worth half that. White camels go for much more because they are prized for their fairer fur. Whenever a winning bid was secured, the camel was untethered and driven to a separate area where marks were spray-painted on the side of its hump.
Symbols were already carved into rumps to indicate ownership. The camel market seemed to have its own written language, a private code understood by the camel sellers and a man in a booth who recorded all transactions in a single tattered ledger. Butchers had eight days to clear their debt. Everyone else needed to lay down stacks of hard cash immediately. The market operates on trust, and millions of Egyptian pounds can change hands before noon on a busy Friday.
When it was time to be loaded onto the overcrowded bed of a pickup truck, the camels fought back. They screamed and yelled and kicked as their tails were pulled, their heads were smacked, their balls were jabbed, and their hides were pushed. Some camels shit on the men handling them. Others just shed tears and cried out to the herd.
In his book Camel Meat and Meat Products, Isam T. Kadim points out that "there are few specialized dromedary camel slaughtering plants in the world because of the limited production and the low per capita consumption of camel meat." There are few regulations on the slaughter of camels, which leaves space for the kind of animal abuse that can be witnessed in Birqash.
Harsh as it may be, the camel market of Birqash plays an important role. Though camel is more commonly consumed in Somaliland and Ethiopia, some Egyptians eat it as well—it's the cheapest red meat in Egypt, and for a country where many live in poverty, the protein trucked in from Birqash is much-needed sustenance. Two years ago, when there were concerns about contracting foot and mouth disease from eating cow, many Cairenes switched to eating camel. The cheaper meat has traditionally been seen as healthier option than beef, and some say camels yield other benefits as well. When I was living in the West Bank, a Bedouin man once offered me a glass of camel milk. "It's like Viagra," he said. "Drink this and you'll last all night."
Back in Cairo, I stopped in a butcher shop to ask about the price of camel meat. The butcher laughed and said only the poor eat camel; the rest eat beef, if they can afford it. Butchers in Cairo never sell both for fear of being accused of mixing the meats and overcharging customers. To locate a kilo of camel, I had to head to Imbaba, a poorer neighborhood west of the Nile.
Forty Egyptian pounds (about $5.50) bought me a kilo, or 2.2 pounds. Food prices have been rising for years, but wages haven't increased with them, so many households have trouble feeding themselves. The butcher in Imbaba told me business had been on the decline.
I took the sack of raw meat to a restaurant and asked them to cook it for me. They made kebabs out of the camel meat, and grilled the skewers with a variety of fresh vegetables, all seasoned perfectly. It was lovely—rich, with plenty of fat to lend it flavor. It tasted like beef but slightly gamey, not unlike buffalo or even ostrich.
The treatment of camels in Birqash is certainly cruel and offensive, but likely no worse than what goes on anywhere else in the world. Factory farming is a an arguably worse practice, because it harms the animals while damaging the environment. It can be harrowing to see animals getting beaten and abused, but it's not as if the pigs and chickens that wind up on Western tables live happy lives and die in their sleep.
In Imbaba, I asked the waiters if they would ever eat camel. "I have before," one said, "but I wouldn't again." Why not? "It's for poor people. I'd rather eat chicken or turkey or beef."