27 May 2019
To reach Birqash, the camels must survive a 40-day journey from Somalia and Sudan. Photo: Brendon Hong
To reach Birqash, the camels must survive a 40-day journey from Somalia and Sudan. Photo: Brendon Hong

Life and death in Egypt’s camel market

The bed of the pickup truck is already sagging under the weight of two camels, with no room to spare. But the butcher bought another and he’s not about to hire a second truck to move his haul.

A few guys try to force the third—and largest—in between the pair that have already been loaded, heaving, shoving, prodding. One camel bites back. Another sprays the guys with shit as they shove it from behind. Out come the canes.

Such is any given Friday morning in Birqash, a small town about 35 kilometers west of Cairo.

The camel market buzzes with life before dawn. Trucks, fully loaded, swerve in and kick up storms of dust and sand. Aridness cracks over every pair of lips.

Men and boys swat, hiss, tsk, taunt, yell, and beat their herd to guide them into the market as cars and bikes arrive from the capital. Forget racing. They’re here for meat.

Adult camels each sell for about 11,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,400), younger ones half that. All transactions are in cash.

Butchers haul theirs back to their places of business, dismantle the carcasses, then pay off the debts within eight days. Anyone else is required to pay in full upon purchase.

A small office on the market grounds keeps track of every sale. Records are handwritten in a tattered notebook. The entire operation is based on trust, on the fact that everyone knows everyone else.

From a distance, it looks like all of the camels in Birqash are three-legged. Even those receiving the best care lack half a limb in their silhouettes.

As sunlight billows over the compound, slowly swelling to reveal every nook, cranny and blight, it becomes clear that they are bound to prevent escape. No matter—determined camels still make a run for it, hobbling in any direction that is away from the men with sticks, barreling into anyone too slow to dodge.

The camels are not only put on display for the buyers. Young men and teenage boys sometimes form a ring around the camels and beat them with sticks. This makes the camels whirl around. The boys call it “dancing.” Buyers yell out their bids as this goes on.

To reach Birqash, the camels survived a 40-day journey from Somalia and Sudan. Those deemed too weak or sick to be sold have their necks slit, corpses discarded to fester here and there in the market.

But Birqash feeds Cairo, especially the poorest. Though anyone who can afford beef or lamb tend to stick to those options, camel meat is often seen as a healthier red meat.

How does camel taste? Lovely, really. Rich, with plenty of fat for flavor. A little gamey, maybe a bit like buffalo. Some believe camel milk is something of a treasure too, and call it Bedouin Viagra.

Seeing how camels are treated in their final moments before facing the butcher’s blade can be a shock. But the same applies to most meat processed at an industrial scale.

By noon, the herders are packing up to truck out, or taking a break over hot tea and falafel. At the same time, butcher shops in Cairo are buzzing with business, cash and fresh meat changing hands.

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Young men form a ring around a camel and beat the animal with sticks. They call it "dancing". Photo: Brendon Hong

Traders put signs on the camels to indicate their ownership. Photo: Brendon Hong

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