Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dances with Camels

We have a long-standing connection with the Camel Markets. I realise on re-reading that that looks a bit odd - but one of the Embassy drivers, a tall, dark and very attractive Sudanese who always looks as if he just stepped from the pages of Esquire magazine - has an uncle at the camel markets.

IMG_2311.JPGAshraf, his uncle, and a young virgin ( Ashraf's description) from Morocco

We visit often, and we always try to send our visitors out there, preferably on a Friday morning when the action is heaviest. It is an odd place, dusty and very surprising not smelly. Camels do not urinate a lot, and their droppings are very dry. I suspect that the adaptations which have them ideal for desert life would have most of us in terminal kidney failure - but then camels are different.

Camel Market, Cairo

One of the camels at the pyramid of Dashour, Antonio, will actually swivel his head in a horribly snake-like way and firmly kiss his driver on the lips.
s for youAntonio is in front

During one of the more horrible periods of last year when Bob was back in Oz for the Cole Enquiry I sent him a text. "At Dashour, Antonio sends a kiss." I got an immediate response. "Am in enough trouble already."

Anyway - Ashraf's uncle has shown us a lot of hospitality over the years. We have been in the habit of phoning to say we are coming - or that our guests are coming, and they make tea, and as a high treat, put our guests (one at a time) on their famous racing camel Shakil.

I only realised the other night that Shakil means Troublemaker. He is a well named camel.

Camels have never been known for their good will and gentleness. They tend to make a lot of the sort of noises that humans find off-putting and which seem to signal a constantly roiling gut. They have long yellow teeth and bare them frequently in ways that humans find even more off-putting. They dribble in a slimy way which means that not many want to get too close to that end of them. They object noisily when asked to sit, or kneel as is more correct. They object noisily again when asked to stand - in fact, when asked to do almost anything. On the plus side they are easy to photograph and have the most beautiful long eyelashes.

Shakil objects more than most! He is almost manic. He is very fast. Apparently last year he came second at the huge camel races in Sharm El Sheik. this year he is tipped to win. We were once told that you can tell a good racing camel by the fact that they seem to stand with their bellies sucked in and Shakil looks suitably concave. With my son on his back he tore around the camel markets hissing and snarling at anyone in the way - and they did not stay in the way for long.
IMG_2319.JPGIt is surprising how fast a tethered camel can move when running circles around the man holding the string.

Ashraf was very pleased to invite us to the wedding and henna night for the daughter of one of his uncles of the camel market.

We went to the henna night.

As soon as the car turned into the street I felt that incredible buzz - like seeing the Treasury at Petra through the siq, or like standing in front of a really exciting art exhibition. The street was throbbing with sound, light and colour. Lights swung in brilliant arcs of red, green, and yellow from the beginning to the end. Screens of REAL tentmaker appliqué lined the street from one end to the other, blocking the unsightly concrete buildings and grotty entrances and somehow merging into the trees to create the feeling of a huge tent - in the centre of a Cairo suburb. The ground was covered in carpets. Nubian music has an instant excitement, and it throbbed through the air with its mixtures of voices and drums. All down the street people were dancing - and their clothes were the pure saturated colours of the tentmaker appliqué.

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The sound level almost reached pain as you approached the centre. We had been given seats of honour - right in front of the loudspeakers. I could feel the music in my chest, through my bag, and everything vibrated - it was almost impossible to think.

The henna painting of the women's feet and hands (and, I think, some part of the men of the bridal party as well, though I was not offered close inspections) had been done in the afternoon. Next time I want to do that! The patterns were beautiful - long graceful twists of flowers and leaves looked blue black against satiny bronze skin. The whole sole of the foot is painted, then graceful flowers curve up the calf to the knee. I know there are connections to beliefs around it, but have not really found out what the exact meanings are. I photographed one enchanting little girl and her hands as she watched the dancers.

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They had obviously been awaiting our arrival for one important entertainer. They cleared a space on the centre of the carpet covered 'dance floor'. They pushed back chairs, they ushered us to the front - with increasing urgency as we heard a commotion from the darkness at the mouth of the street, and, to a roar of music, Shakil came charging into the street, whirled on the carpet and charged right back out.

Shakil enters, and leaves

In the blur of movement I was seeing through the lens of the SLR I realised that at one stage he came straight at me and Ashraf's hand shot out - recognisable by the silver bracelet. I know only one man can control Shakil - and that man was on his back. However, I think he might have done better at looking nonchalant if his cigarette had been in his mouth the right way around!

I thought that was it - but Shakil came back again and again and again, seeming to dance with the delighted men as he rocked and ducked and whirled. At one stage he charged a corner and women scattered in panic as chairs rolled. He seemed to be on a perpetual slope to one side of almost 60 degrees. Carpets rolled their corners up in terror under his thudding feet, his teeth seemed his most prominent feature and the one that seemed to approach most often. At one stage he left an unmistakable gift on the red carpet - perhaps a comment on his opinion of the night and noise.

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There was a final baring of teeth and he galumphed off into the night.

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Then our host emerged with a smoking pot - they gave it another name but it smelled like oud - a marvelous smoky smell like a richer sandalwood. Did you know that the word perfume comes from the Roman occupation of the Middle East? Per for scent, and fume for smoke, because of the Arab tradition of taking scented smoke through their houses for the scent, and incidentally deterring moths in clothing.

Photographs don't show the swirling of the dance, with men joining him and lifting their clothes to fill them with the rich and expensive scent. The host has eight brothers, and all are very good looking men, with the aesthetic slim face and high cheekbones and as elegantly beautiful in city clothes as in the galabeyiehs of the camel market.

Our host then called out his wife, and she put the pot on her head and danced for at least half an hour, steady and stately and rhythmically moving through a packed and bumpy crowd of dancers with the pot gently smoking. Through the whole night the clapping was an undercurrent of beat from women in chairs, and from kids on the stage and packed all around the perimeters of the screens.

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Did I mention that the man who opened the door of our car to let us out into the party was holding a whip? It was an ominous beginning. Then another man handed Bob a sword. The men were all armed to the teeth and most of the dancers brandished swords or sticks or whips - great thick leather ones like black snakes wound around wrists to control the ends! One of the brothers held his sword lightly over the head of the bride - though his name was not Damocles.

The bride to be was in bright lime - a beautiful girl with a compelling personality - one of those people who can light up a space with a smile, and obviously what I think of as a 'woman of power'. Nothing magical - just one of these women who will naturally lead groups. IN fact, the party was full of them. The groom was in white, as is appropriate for the henna night. He was dark and charming and looked gentle. They were obviously in love, and there was a lot more contact and dancing between the sexes than at most Egyptian parties. It was just delightful to see.

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I have so many photographs but will add a few of guests at the party - just scroll until the text starts again.

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IMG_7432.JPGCheck out the shoes!

IMG_7422.JPGThree wise men

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There was a stage set up at the end of the street, and on it drapes and chairs. Just before we left the bride, who had briefly disappeared, reappeared in striking traditional black and silver. She and her fiance sat on the chairs and received the crowd. They posed for a myriad of photos - and some of the poses were obviously expected and were intended to show off the henna.

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I know food was to be served - but it was around 1.00am and we piked!

9 Comments:

Blogger Sam Bowker, somewhere distant and exotic. said...

Wonderful post Mum! Thanks also for including a photo of me in it. I'll never forget that ride! I love the photos of the guests and the description of our quadruped friend's "dance". Thanks so much for giving us such a comprehensive, well-illustrated, diverse story yet again.

For everyone out there who reads these comments, George Lambert (an official artist for the Australian War Memorial in the First World War) once wrote of the camel:

"He is beautiful to draw and paint but he is an animal one cannot love. Never attempt to caress a camel. If he should try to caress you, and he will if you are not watchful, hit him with anything that is handy and heavy. The butt of the rifle, an army boot, hobnailed, or the Colonel's best armchair."

I suspect that might be well-heeded advice for Shakil and his siblings.

10:38 pm  
Blogger Cairogal said...

Fabulous photos, Jenny! The camel market is an experience not to be missed. How quickly they move even w/ one leg bound...

The wedding looks like a festive event-much more lively than many Egyptian weddings.

2:27 am  
Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,

What a wonderful night you must have had. I must say our wedding look pretty ordinary by comparison.

I must say that I have always thought camels to look extremely aristocratic and very arrogant and one your ohotos is the epitomy of this.

It is 0o in the ACT this morning but oh what a gorgeous, sunny and sparkly morning.

Cheers Helen

8:57 am  
Blogger Teresa said...

Thank you so much for sharing your life with us blog readers. I love to travel and have never been in your area at all. Here is my blog post on a wedding I went to in Tokyo.

http://teresasuek.blogspot.com/2007/04/i-left-for-tokyo-on-wednesday-afternoon.html

3:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What wonderful excitement. Thank you so much. Your writing is almost as good as being there. May your writing help all the peoples of the world understand and appreciate one another. t

4:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha, Jenny! What a fantastic day and series of events to be privy to! I have always been utterly fascinated with henna mehndi, and used enough henna on my grey over the years to tatoo this entire party and then some, but the patterns are just stunning. Lovely couple, I saw just what you meant about the bride, and the groom had a gentle and kind face. They are obviously in love, and I hope that the years are good to them.
I still think I would have stayed for the food, but at 1 AM, I can't blame you one bit.
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful adventure of yours!
Hugs,
Rain

6:39 am  
Blogger Liz Needle said...

Thanks Jenny for sharing that wonderful experience and for bringing it to life so vividly. What a beautiful, exciting and colourful night you had.
As for the camels. Delightful!! I rode a very quiet one around Ayers Rock at dawn and it was one of the highlights of my holiday.

Liz

11:41 pm  
Blogger Shirley said...

Lovely photo and experience, Jenny.

5:01 am  
Anonymous Sue McB said...

What a fabulous experience Jenny, and great photos. One can almost hear the festivities and smell the perfumes. I do so enjoy reading of your adventures. Thanks for sharing it all.

8:18 pm  

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