Camel Stampede, Cairo 1983

 

Does anyone remember when we took a mighty step for mankind: the one from the hand-held movie camera to record events nobody else wants to look at to a video-cam recorder? If I remember correctly, the family version surfaced in the early 1980s, weighed about forty pounds. We got one to take over to the Sudan.

We recorded our young family whilst on our Overseas Adventures Around the World. Hours of tape, most of which was tossed. Our adventures were often sedate and occasionally hair-raising as traveling with a three year old and a six year old can be. Our trip to Cairo was one of the best. We had planned to see the pyramids at Giza, Memphis, Khan Ali-Kalili, and perhaps take a real cruise on the River Nile. We were only going to spend three days in Cairo and move on to Tunesia and Morocco. Instead we spent our two week holiday in Cairo.

We had booked a stay at the Hotel Jolieville based solely on information that it had a children’s playground, a rare treat for our little ones. Rule one on traveling with children: if you want to enjoy yourselves, they must have many opportunities to run off energy. Hotel stairways are a good place to spend excess energy and enhance family opportunities for pleasant dining later on

After settling into our room we went to the concierge to see about booking a couple of tours for our short visit. They said they had the perfect tour guide for us, an English speaking fellow who had a family of his own. While the concierge contacted the tour guide we took the kids out to the playground to wear them out.

Larry was taking Stevie down the slide, and I was swinging with Rebecca when our guide appeared, calling for Mr. and Mrs. Sims. We met him by the monkey bars, a man about my height, short, greying hair, a trim moustache and crinkly light eyes. The kids gravitated to him immediately, and we struck up a conversation about the only “must dos” on our list: we wanted to ride on horseback at dawn to see the sunrise over the pyramids.

Our guide and good friend, Mohammed never let us out of his sight, always kept his eyes on us, my handbag, our cameras and our kids. We were constantly cautioned when we visited African countries to keep a tight hold on our children at all times. There are those who really steal people, usually children and young women.

On this auspicious day Mohammed takes us to see the camels. I didn’ t tell him that we had a camel souk in Khartoum and I had been out there a number of times. Mohammed informed us as we entered the arena of hobbled camels, was that they all were from Sudan! That was fresh news to me. I tried to imagine a “camel drive” rolling, rolling, rolling up the Nile. He pointed out how one front leg of each camel was bent at the knee and tied with a rope. They were hobbled so they could not get away if they were spooked. I could not imagine what that might look like, be like: hundreds of tons of animal herded for hundreds of miles, following the Nile from Khartoum to Cairo.

Larry, was lugging the video cam on his shoulder, monkeying with light, focus and angle as Mohammed and I herded kids. Mohammed’s eyes continually darted around, his hawk eye noting every one and every thing. The camels and their owners were very interested in our little party, they especially wanted to say hello to the children: Rebecca at six was tall and lean with long dark hair and dark eyes like Dad; Steven, a rolly poly three year old with a chubby face, blonde hair and green eyes like Mom.

The souk was packed with men in their spotless white gelabias, turbins or yamulkas. Everyone smoked as they milled around, sedately leading their camels, greeting each other with friendly hugs and “arm-pats”, an ancient practice from the days when greeting a “friend” could be deadly: he could be wearing an arm-knife. A friendly pat-down was required.

A fellow approached carrying what appeared to be a huge fur rug. As he got near we saw he carrying an enormous baby camel. We were speechless as he approached. He no doubt saw an opportunity to share his huge treasure, get some rest as well as some baksheesh. He very gently laid it on the ground and explained that the mother camel died giving birth to her baby. He had to feed and care for the baby, which included sleeping with it on the ground, keeping it warm until it could stand up and move. The little camel’s neck would become strong enough to hold his head and his legs strong enough to support his body and he would no longer require such devoted care. Within three days the infant would stagger upright and be independently mobile. But he still might want to sleep with the owner a while longer

We were allowed pet this sweet, soft, plush giant creature who looked a lot like ET with false eyelashes. Larry hooked up the video cam and shot some footage, and I gave the owner baksheesh for his trouble and Mohammad mumbled something about taking us back to the Hotel Jolieville to wash up again.

The day was warming up, and I was happy to feel heat as well as appreciative of the brilliant blue sky above, something I missed living in the desert dustbowl that was North Sudan. The souk by now was wall to wall animals, a sea of undulating fur, spitting mouths and honking groans. Larry was documenting the scent and decided to back up to get a little distance, broader sweep of hundreds of camels. In his excitement he forgot to check if anything was in back of him, like a camel.

In an instant he took a couple of steps backward, and his camera smacked a camel in his face. The beast screamed and rose up, standing on his two hind feet, pawing with his one free foot, and setting off a haboob, a desert sand storm of bellowing three legged camels on the run with their owners chasing them, no doubt cursing Larry.

“Oh oh, we go! Now!”

Mohammed grabbed Larry by the arm and jerked him away from his Eye Witness View.

“If any person gets hurt, if any camels are damaged, you will have to pay for them. We go now!”

We refrained from running, put the kids in the middle of the three of us and skulked out of the souk pretending that nobody would notice our little family amongst all the once white gelabias chasing after screaming, terrified camels.

 

On the way back to our hotel Mohammad invited us to dinner that night. His wife was preparing a special meal and we would get to meet his eight children. He said he would pick us up after we cleaned up.

“You are very lucky we got out of the souk quickly, Mr. Larry. The camels were the livelihood of the men. It is very dangerous when the camel does not have four legs to run on. For both reasons people can be killed.”

As Mohammad spoke I shivered and wondered what we thought we were doing, Americans prancing through other peoples lives, disrupting and perhaps endangering their livelihood not to mention everyones life.

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