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There's No Business Like Camels

Trading thrives in Saudi Arabia, where the animals are prized for their meat and their milk -- 'It's Arab Viagra,' says one man.

August 04, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Out here, where the city ends and the sand dunes start, the air is hot, the sky is brown and the smell is foul.

The world's largest camel market sprawls across two square miles here, a warren of cinderblock shacks, twisty dirt streets and billowing clouds of dust.

And, of course, camels, camels, camels. And more camels. There are thousands of them, jostling in rusty pens, crowded in the backs of pint-sized pickups, bellowing to one another in low, guttural screams that would not be out of place in a hospital labor room.

They are black and red, tan and white, tall and short, baby camels whose humps have not yet developed, pregnant females as wide as two refrigerators and 8-foot-high bull camels that weigh in at 1,500 pounds.

It's a baking, stinking, yawping chaos that brings joy to a camel trader's heart.

"A camel is a fortune," said Ahmad Turki Otaiby, smiling as he patted the head of a small white camel that he hoped to sell for $300 one recent day. "It is our tradition, our culture."

This is old school Saudi Arabia, where men like Otaiby have calloused hands and sun-browned faces and still work camels like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

The men gather here every day from all over, using pickups to haul the choicest camels from the herds that roam ranches in the sandy wastelands that surround this country's gleaming modern capital.

Most of the animals here are destined for the slaughterhouse. Camel meat is a prized delicacy. The haunch is the tastiest bit and low in fat, the traders quickly point out to those who inquire, since most of the animal's fat is stored in its hump.

Others will be sold to dairies. A mystique surrounds camel milk in Arab culture. Some believe it a healthy tonic, taking it steaming-hot straight from the udder. Others see it as a diuretic, a full-scale cleaning that supposedly takes two days to flush through your system.

Then there are those who claim it improves sexual potency.

"It's Arab Viagra," said one man.

A lucky few will be sold as baubles. Wealthy sheiks and businessmen buy the finest specimens for breeding or racing, a popular sport here. These are animals with smooth coats, well-proportioned humps, eyes as big as the palm of a hand and eyelashes that stretch as long as a finger.

There are usually special auctions for such thoroughbred camels, and prices soar into the millions of dollars.

"It's a hobby for the rich, to search for the most unique camel," said Hassan Ali Ahmed, 45, a Sudanese camel handler. He watched as six of his men wrestled a newly purchased female to the ground. A mash of man and camel resulted, a fierce, groaning ball of arms and legs and camel parts that eventually stilled long enough for another man to rush in and brand the animal with a hot iron.

"The camel business is better than ever," Ahmed said, pointing to two other recently purchased camels waiting for branding and breeding.

Almost none of the animals bought and sold here will be put to use for transport. The single-hump camel, also known as the dromedary from the Greek word for runner, used to be the backbone of Saudi society. It was the all-purpose beast of burden that made life possible in this inhospitable desert kingdom.

Camels can go up to a week without food and water. They can eat nearly anything, from thorny bushes to seeds to dried leaves. Sometimes called "ships of the desert" for their rocking gait, they have a remarkable ability to navigate in the seemingly featureless terrain of the desert.

"In Saudi Arabia, nobody rides a camel anymore. Now, it's all for fun or for racing," Mohammed Hazar, 42, a lanky handler who was covered in a fine layer of grit after a day spent wrestling camels into their pens.

It was not always so. Many of the men here remember with fondness the old days of the Saudi kingdom, when camel riding was a part of daily life. Otaiby is typical.

Though he says he is 55, he looks 20 years older. His face is creased and brown like a walnut shell, the tuft of beard at the end of his chin startlingly white. The head covering that frames his face is checked red and white, his ankle-length robe is dirty and his feet are swollen and black.

Otaiby has been trading, riding and handling camels since he was a boy in the desert four decades ago. He has seen Saudi Arabia be transformed from a forgotten backwater to a modern nation.

When he was a boy, it took a month on camel to make a journey from Riyadh to his hometown. Now, wide black highways arc through the desert, turning the trek into a five-hour trip by car. Mirrored high-rises glinting in downtown Riyadh have replaced desert tents. The omnipresent hum of the air conditioner has tamed the fierce heat.

"In the old days, nobody used to buy and sell camels. We didn't have so much money in our pockets. We depended on these camels," Otaiby said. "But change must take place."

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