The air is full of heat, dust, and wild cries from both man and creature.
I step back as both feet and hooves gallop past. Men brandish sticks above their heads, grey and white galabeyas flying behind them like capes with their pursuit. Boys join the chase. A fearless, giggling tangle swept into the charged hurricane of commotion.
I search for a place safe from the various bodies hurtling across this sandy arena and am drawn to a man sitting on the outskirts of the chaos. Dressed in an elegant, dark grey galabeya with shades on his tanned, worn face, he surveys the scene before him with an air of royalty. I sit close by.
He asks my name and offers a cigarette. I ask for his: Mohamed Abd. We sit in companionable silence and look on as the smoke curls up.
It is an altogether different world from the nearby city and, unbeknown to me in this moment, Mohamed Abd is its king.
I had scrambled onto a 7 am train that morning, unsure of the day that lay ahead but certain it would hold something special. The sun began its ascent as the carriages rolled past the urban sprawl and I settled back to watch fields of farmland slowly appear out of the pink haze. So many eyes were on me, curious about my escape from Cairo’s maze of narrow streets. But that morning, I only had eyes for the new window of Egyptian life unfurling on the other side of the glass.
Five minutes after being released from the packed train, I tested my nearly-non-existent Arabic and finally resorted to mimicking a camel. The driver, miraculously, understood and insisted he was going my way. I hauled myself into the back of his pickup truck. We drove on, bumping by groups of schoolgirls who giggled and shrieked with excitement when I returned their waves, my own glee matching theirs with the destination finally in sight.
Birqash Camel Market. Egypt’s largest, lying just beyond Cairo’s reach in the village of Birqash, where hundreds of camels are relocated from as far as Western Sudan and Somalia.
I spent the morning wandering among Egyptian men clothed in traditional grey and white galabeyas. “Welcome to Egypt!” filled my ears, everyone’s manners inquisitive and gestures warm. Despite living in the country for half a year, it felt appropriate. I returned the curious smiles with ease.
Camels approached my turned back noiselessly, only making their presence known when the temptation to nibble on my hair became too much. And I found myself falling for the odd creatures with their magnificently elegant strides, knobbly knees, and lurching way of up-righting themselves.
Mohamed’s eyes now turn to me, full of questioning bemusement as he silently asks why I’m currently beaming at his everyday motions with such delight. I turn to him and shrug, my grin widening. He freely returns it, chuckling to himself. We return to our cigarettes.
I have no explanation to give Mohamed. It’s a harsh place and certainly not one I imagined to enjoy to this extent. The sticks make a sickening, thudding sound on the camels’ bodies. Many of the animals have one leg tied to prevent them from straying far and are forced into an awkward three-legged lollop. Each hide is a map of scars and crimson stains mark the most rebellious of the creatures.
Yet I cannot pass judgement, nor do I want to. It would be easy to frown upon the treatment of the camels – exotic and majestic in my eyes. However, in reality, there is little difference between the traditions of this market and the farming industry in my own country with its slaughterhouses and battery hen farming.
As I watch the pandemonium of the market unfold, I realize that order does exist within the chaos, and Mohamed Abd is ensuring it.
Everyone seems to know him. They go out of their way to approach our perch, simply to greet him and shake his hand. I don’t need to understand Arabic to know this man is greatly respected.
Any doubts that were lurking vanish when he invites me for tea and leads the way into a cool, whitewashed building. The office of the market. As we walk inside, he is keen to reassure me that the tiger skin shoes on his feet are indeed real.