Dances with Camels
Ashraf, 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.
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.
Antonio 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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
There was a final baring of teeth and he galumphed off into the night.
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.
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.
I have so many photographs but will add a few of guests at the party - just scroll until the text starts again.
Check out the shoes!
Three wise men
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.
I know food was to be served - but it was around 1.00am and we piked!