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Camel trade runs into sand

The sun is high and it’s a slow day for selling and there’s not much for a camel trader to do except scatter hay and greens and listen to the big beasts munch. Sounds like shoes walking through gravel.

Essam Ammar lifts a cellphone from his tunic.

“Hi, Ahmed. No, I won’t lower the price.”

Eyes roll.

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Ammar pulls the phone from his ear and looks at it; Ahmed’s words crackle in the air.

Click. It’s not even noon. The day seems in retreat.

“I’ve been doing this for 29 years,” says Ammar, who wears a white-lace cap and an even snowier pinstriped vest, a risky choice amid blowing dust and rubbish fires. “You have to know your camels, setting price to age. The best come from Sudan. The ones from Somalia don’t adapt so well. I can tell if a camel will bite me or just run away. It is essential to know such things.”

The traders around him, some with blood splotches on their tunics, nod.

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The Birqash camel market about 20 miles northwest of downtown Cairo is an unfortunate place to end up if you have four legs and a long neck. It’s not so great these days for camel traders either.

Herdsmen in Sudan and Somalia are pushing up prices but the traders -- the middlemen -- often can’t pass the increases on to hard-pressed butchers in Cairo and across the Nile Delta. Egypt’s inflation is keeping many families from buying camel, the traditional meat they ate when beef and mutton grew too expensive. It’s the cruel global economic ripple that finds even the battered crossroads of places like Birqash.

“I’m making about 5,000 pounds [$915] less each year because camel prices are rising and butchers can’t afford to buy and people can’t afford the price of meat,” says trader Ali Hamed, who hasn’t seen his wife in months. “I’m married, with two children. I used to send home 350 pounds [$65] a week but now can only manage 150 pounds [$28]. My wife does the best she can. I’d like to go home more, but for the price of a train ticket I can buy two bags of wheat to feed my family.”

Hamed lives in southern Egypt. His father traded camels and Hamed, who never went to school, figured that’s what village boys grew up to do. Instead of a book bag, he picked up a herding stick and started learning about camels traveling north from Sudan along the Nile or arriving in freighters from Somalia at the port of Suez. They are white, beige, the color of sand and gray. A camel can be healthy one day and die the next; it is a mystery of the trade.

He looks down the road that runs through the market past low buildings that have baked and cracked over time. Goats scavenge what the camels miss, and the camels, some plump, others rippled bones papered in skin, follow the sounds of strange voices, heads floating up on necks, turning. If a camel runs, a man with a leather strap bends back one of its legs and ties it.

A camel bite scar shines on Hamed’s skull. He lives in a brick hut with hay bales on the roof, his animals in a pen. His best offerings are tethered to a post out front. At the market gate, two camels fighting ropes are hauled onto a pickup truck. They look like oversized toys with their legs folded beneath them; slamming doors and nasally honks break the quiet.

“I want my kids to be educated,” Hamed says. “I don’t want them to be in this place with me.”

Boys with bottles and brushes mark camels for sale with purple and green letters. They dart around legs, beneath tails, careful not to be kicked, and some of them will inherit a stall on market row when they become men. A trader doesn’t just appear here; he is raised on stories of uncles and cousins who shoveled dung and tended wounds and cursed sick camels long before he was born.

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“This market is controlled by 10 to 15 families,” says Abdel Wahab Wagih, the market historian and man who keeps an eye on what enters and leaves through the gate. “The traders inherited the businesses from their fathers and grandfathers. The younger generations got educated and many of them have university degrees, but they still come here to run the family trade.”

Fawaz Ahmed Mansour needs a shave. He’s a round man, a 67-year-old trader with a wife and seven children who every day hops on a minibus in Cairo and races along the delta past shacks, mango trees and fields of women bent over silver pails and short-handled hoes. Around a garbage dump, and up a small hill, Mansour gets dropped off at the market, where the busy days are Fridays and Sundays, when the butchers come to buy and tourists take pictures.

“The butchers don’t have hard cash anymore,” Mansour says. “No one’s prospering.”

What really amazes him, though, is how Cairo keeps growing, sprawling toward the desert and up and down the Nile, a disheveled, rambunctious metropolis of 18 million people and counting. But fewer camels. There are no deserted places in Cairo anymore, no hideaways to go and be alone, not like when he was a young man and there were trees and no good roads to Helwan, a suburb to the south with a nice view of the Nile. Now, he can take the subway or drive the wide corniche highway.

The price of camel meat has been expanding too. In the last year camel has risen from $1.80 a pound to as much as $2.90 a pound, still cheaper than beef and mutton, but costly enough that many Egyptians have crossed it off their shopping lists.

As Mansour lists the injustices, economic and otherwise, facing his trade, a man in a pale tunic flaps his arms like a bird and chases a camel down the dirt road, trying to round the stubborn thing into a pen, but the camel’s way ahead of the man and they’re both stirring up dust that a boy with a hose has been working to keep down.

A breeze drifts through the market in faint gasps. A policeman sits near a lady selling soda and water. A pair of sandals waits outside the mosque, the sun and the heat turn the edges of the market blurry, and there’s not much to do except pull a hay bale off a roof or find a piece of shrinking shade and offer a Cleopatra cigarette to anyone who passes.

Ammar sits on a wooden bench. His lace skullcap is too white for this place, but after nearly three decades in the trade, a man learns how to keep clean for stretches at a time. And unlike Hamed and the other traders from the south, who are thinner and lighter of foot, Ammar goes home every night to Cairo and his wife.

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It used to be easier, though. That’s what he thinks. Taxes are higher and the Egyptian government has new health regulations and stricter inspections for camels entering the country. Some wait for days and weeks at the borders, where healthy camels are exposed to sick ones. One trader had 30 camels die before they reached the market. It all means money. Lost money.

“But camel meat is still a blessing,” Ammar says.

The five guys smoking Cleopatras around him nod. Every day doesn’t seem like a blessing, but now, huddled with friends, their camels fed and watered, and Ammar telling stories about his highest-priced camel (15,000 pounds, many years ago) and how once a camel died on him on the road and he had to slaughter it quick or risk the meat spoiling, things aren’t so bad, even if you don’t buy a train ticket home so your children can have more to eat.

“It’s strange, you know, Egypt is a poor country but there are still a lot of rich people and they keep getting richer,” Ammar says. “I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

His cellphone rings.

“Hi, Ahmed.”

Ammar inspects his fingernails, yawns.

“No, Ahmed, I’m not lowering the price.”

Click.

--

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan in The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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