Issue october 2000 | Archive | © Diana Matar and related links
Meat for thought
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Most of the men who handle camels in the market south of Cairo know little about the animals: they are butchers and farmers. I can tell this from their dress and the camels know it from their behaviour.

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I have never owned a camel but I am descended from a people who depended on them, indeed who journeyed on them from the Libyan deserts to China. It is tricky for an Arab to be writing in English about such an animal whose image has been distorted by romantic legends . If I tell you the good things, such as my childhood memories of the camels my family owned and the many stories passed on to me by grown men were deeply affected by this beast 's profound loyalty, I would just be reinforcing a romantic oriental image of wild brown men crossing the desert with their animal companions. If I tell you the bad things, such as the cruelty of these untrained men from the Nile valley (who know as much about camels as a group of men from, say, Shropshire in the heart of rural Britain), I would be consolidating a darker stereotype that the West clings on to about us: that we are untamed, cruel barbarians lacking in the necessary standards of civilised behaviour.
So what shall I do?
I will tell the truth - as I see it - and put my faith in the human heart, which can, if trusted, see humanity as it is and not feel the need to simplify it into types. May God strengthen our hearts so we can abandon hate and prejudice.

Forty kilometres south of Cairo, the beasts were solemnly obedient as the untrained young men beat them wildly with their shoomas. In the fresh but quickly ageing early morning air, the men arched their bodies as they swung the dark plump root of these bamboo walking sticks, bringing them down with great force upon the bodies of the beasts. The camels had almost no fur and the resulting blows sent out loud and horrific slaps. From a distance, the shoomas could be mistaken for whips, but that was from their speed in mid-air; when they landed, they were stiff and solid. Some of the camels screamed, with a deep sense of irritation, but most kept silent, perplexed at the reason for such a beating and trying to do what they guessed their masters wanted of them. They turned, then turned again, tried to sit, they stirred, stood still, hopped on three legs( for one leg was folded and tied up to prevent them escaping) - but none of this worked at all.

The sellers overfed their camels in preparation for the sale. The beasts moved heavily and when the sticks hit their tightly bloated bellies, they sent out deep drumming thumps and then you could see the skin on the animals long curved neck twitch and their beautiful butterfly eyelashes blink furiously.

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