Quite often the journey is as interesting as the destination and getting to the Birqash camel market on the outskirts of Cairo was no exception. The guidebook made it sound easy to get to (by taxi 30-40 minutes north of Cairo) and Mahmoud, one of the men who alternate at the front desk at the African House Hostel, offered to write down the name in Arabic for us as well as his cell number in case we got lost. He scribbled this down on the back of a business card for the hostel and we were set. Just like a Monopoly “Get out of jail free” card, we had our "lifeline." As long as I didn’t lose my little piece of paper we could avoid any problems getting to where we wanted to go.
Clutching our lifeline, we walked out onto the early-morning Cairo streets. The first two taxi drivers we flagged down stopped and looked at our little piece of paper as though they’d never seen Arabic before. After a robust salaam akiekum greeting, we stood and watched each of them silently as they wrinkled their foreheads, looked at us, then gave us an apologetic shrug before handing us our piece of paper and driving off. The third driver who stopped for us took a glance at the paper and instantly invited us into his taxi. We quickly negotiated what we knew was a fair price and sped off through the half-empty streets. Everything seemed to be going well until our driver turned his taxi around and started coming back the way we came. Then he turned off near some large apartment buildings and slowly looked around. We’d read that the market was on the edge of Egypt’s Western Desert so we knew we were not close. Time to pull out the lifeline: I flipped over the little slip of paper and pointed to Mahmoud’s phone number.
We watched while our driver had an animated conversation with Mahmoud that looked like it involved some re-negotiations. After 10 minutes on the phone, the driver grumbled and we drove back the way we came, finally turning north on a freeway and following the Nile for awhile. After 30 minutes, we turned off the freeway and our driver rolled down the window and asked a man driving a horse cart “Souk gamel?” (camel market?). He pointed to the right and for the next hour we drove through small towns, stopping many times to ask the same question: “Souk gamel?” About two hours after leaving our hostel, we finally arrived at the Birqash camel market. If our journey to the market was arduous, the camels’ were far worse. Most of the camels are from the Sudan and are walked up the Forty Days Road across the Egyptian border to a point just north of Abu Simbel. They are then driven north on a 24 hour dash to Birqash and by the time they arrive, they are not in the best of shape.
We paid our entrance fee and entered Egypt’s largest camel market. In the hot, dusty compound there were hundreds of somewhat-scrawny camels with robe-clad men whacking them with sticks. Aside from some women selling drinks and food near the entrance and a few tourists, there were no women at the market. The compound was surrounded by low, flat stucco buildings with stacks of hay and grazing goats on top. The camels were marked with blue spray-painted Arabic script on their sides and their left legs were folded back and tied to reduce their mobility, their protruding knee resembling an amputee’s stump. Little boys, imitating their fathers and older brothers, whacked away at the camels, many of whom let out loud groans. Navigating the market was difficult; if you stopped to take a picture in one direction, invariably a massive camel would be come up behind you from the opposite direction. We stopped to watch an impromptu auction. Men in blue, grey and khaki robes stood on the steps of a building while camels were paraded in front of them. Multiple hands shot up to place bids and each sale took about a minute. I learned later that prices range from $350 to $700 per camel, depending on the size and health of the camel.
We kept walking through the market and I suddenly heard my kids utter a collective groan. Right in front of them, a recently-purchased camel was being held down and its throat slit. Aside from being used as beasts of burden, many of the camels were used for meat, a fact that was made all too plain for our kids. The market had been great but seeing this definitely put a damper on the experience for our kids. It was time to go. We found our taxi driver and headed back towards Cairo. Presumably, getting back to Cairo would be much easier but we had our lifeline just in case.