The Largest Camel Market in North Africa

The Path to Burqash

As I write this, my apartment steeps in the smell of steamy camel dung, dirt, and petrol, as though it is inhaling the atmospheric remnants absorbed by my skin this morning, and purged in the shower just now. On my bed rest the battle-worn backpack and tear gas-stained headscarves which carried me through another gauntlet of culture, now covered in a thick layer of dust, leaking their own sordid aroma beside the spoils of warmy new camelhair blanket and a camera laden with 635 captures from Cairo's largest camel souk.

Over an hour outside of Cairo lies a town called Burqash, and every Friday in Burqash hundreds of camel traders from across northeast AfricaEgypt, Sinai, Sudan, and Somaliagather at 6am to ring the weekend with a six-hour camel auction. As you break free of Cairo's sprawl and enter the countryside aprofoundchangeoccurs: not only do the haphazardbuildingsgive way to banana palms and crop fields, but the sepia tone urban smog is replaced by a cool blue haze which rises from the agriculture and cloaks the earth from the sun. Here you can see for miles and as you drive by you can see the homes of the tenant farmers, each standing low in a grove of trees between the fields, and periodically a tall, lonely mosque will rise up with it's thick base among the crops and it's dual minarets wedged into the haze. From these, the garbled call to prayer comes through the mist,thrumming low over the plants, choked by the weight of the air.

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As we pull into the sleepy farming village of Burqash our previously jovial driver pauses and looks us each in the eye, "You have to be careful here. It can be dangerous for foreigners." The camel market is featured in the Lonely Planet guide to Cairo (granted definitely outdated), so I asked him what exactly he meant. "Ten days ago a man from the Gulf (Arab Gulf) came and there was a fight. They beat him and he ran, but they shot him, took his things and threw him in the Nile." My eyebrows made a territory grab toward my scalp. He sad that the guy bought a camel but didn't have any money. Camels can go for $500 to $6,000 depending on age, gender, and use. A $6,000 camel isn't rare at all though, and apparently racing camels are close to $100,000 with winners commanding even higher prices. Even a cheap camel has incredible value; In Egypt, $500 can feed a person for a year and a half. I'm guessing that lost in translation was something about him actually taking the camel before paying for it. Anyway, we we're duly warned to take off anything shiny or suggestive of wealth, because the biggest risk to us would be theft, and our driver pledged to shepherd us if things starting getting strange.

We were relieved to find that at the souk's entrance those not there to conduct business are required to purchase an entrance ticket $6.50 is a small price to pay for a slip of paper legitimizing your presence. The souk runs the length of a dirt road, probably close to half a mile long with large pens on each side to store different traders' camels. We walked to the end of the souk and a man invited us to see his baby camel. We we're wary of being asked to pay more, but followed him to a smaller area that was closed off tot he main souk where a 3 month old camel was resting with her mother. They rose to greet us when we walked in, and I swear the baby could have easily carried me she was already so big. I made a joke about Grace being 4 months old and up to the younger camel's knees, which got some friendly laughs from the man and his son. He showed us out and didn't ask for a tip, which further put us at ease. Arab hospitality is common, sincere, and often welcoming to the point of overbearing, but when we entered this outpost of 500 businessmen and their thousands of camels, we weren't sure how we'd be treated. Our fears we're delightfully unfounded. Our taxi driver bought some sweet bread for us to munch on as we explored the auctions, where men would shout their new bid in increments of the hundreds of Egyptian pounds until they haswhittledit down to the final 50EGP about $7. Most of the camels had a front leg bound to prevent their running loose, but the scene was still chaotic even by Egyptian standards. All around us camels we're shirking their binds, runningamok, startling other dazed dromedaries into like action. I imagine if I we're looking down on the souk from above it would have looked like a fireworks display of sorts, with one camel running from it's minder as the rocket, which exploded into a shower of sparks when it encounter a group of stationary camels and set them careening forth in flight. Add to this mayhem the constant flow of incoming trucks carrying loads of new camels in to be sold, and the equally constant train of trucks carrying recently purchased camels out, both attempting to gain dominance of the single-track dirt road, and never mind the periodic addition of over stacked flatbeds importing tons of feed grass every now and then. Casey almost met one of these first hand when the cab drove by him with a foot clearance, but it's load stuck out two feet on either side, and he had to sidestep the back of the truck to avoid being bowled over in a sea of dense green hay.

A man of impossible age waved me over to sit with him on a bench, and I picked my way through the thicket of massive, humped beasts which had planted themselves in front of his hut. He shook my hand and offered us tea or coffee, cigarettes, and, later, hashish. I did not take him up on any of his offers, because much as I would have liked tea, it was already brutally hot out. We talked for a while about my studies, and which camels are used for what, and how you know which ones are from where, and which ones taste best (Egyptian camels, in case you find yourself playing trivial pursuit sometime). This conversation culminated in a declaration of friendship, followed immediately by his encouraging me to marry his mother so that I could be his father. I told him I am only 20, and he declared he was only 35 and that his mother wouldn't mind because it would make him happy for me to be his father. When you look through the album below, the weathered old man who gives the thumbs up and is pictured cleaning the glasses and preparing tea is the selfsame one who entreated me to join his family! He greeted every newcomer to his hut with an arm around their neck and a series of noisy kisses planted on their abashed cheeks, and one of these newcomers informed us that he was high from smoking hashish, which some of the others we're enjoying in the hut as well. An interesting quirk for an aged camel trader, but he didn't seem to be a black sheep among the group, so the more you know!

On the way back to Cairo we stopped along the Nile and had tea on a boat. Something of an unplanned stop, but completely ordinary to my experience here. The taxi driver mentioned a lunch break and the next thing we knew we we're pulling over on an island in the river. The driver took an agricultural route back to Cairo which was absolutely gorgeous, as both sides of the road we're lined with heaps of thickly flowering vines of all colors, and stretching for hundreds of feet at a time. There we're also a number of garden shops with their plants laid out for equal stretches, which at times made me feel like we could have been driving through a kaleidoscope, or bisecting a rainbow. The ride home was quick because I was lost to daydreaming of a plantation ringed with flower gardens, orchards, and farmland.

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Posted in Business Post Date 02/28/2018






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