Visiting Omdurman’s Camel Market
“WHERE is the Mowaleeh?” we ask. Our four-wheel-drive vehicle has taken us from the capital city, Khartoum, to the western edge of old Omdurman, the largest city in Sudan.
There are no road signs, only a maze of sand tracks. So we make the above inquiry of some men who are riding their donkeys. Their beasts of burden are laden with drums of drinking water. The riders are helpful and point us in the right direction. After five more miles [8 km], we drive our vehicle over a high sand barrier and see a remarkable sight, Omdurman’s camel market, the Mowaleeh.
This is a far cry from the air-conditioned shopping malls in the West. The market operates outdoors under the hot sky of the Sahara Desert. About one square mile [3 sq km] in size, with no clear boundaries, it has no trees or plants. In fact, there is sand as far as the eye can see. But you can also see camels by the hundreds and shepherds clad in the traditional national costume called jalabeeya.
As we watch fine yellowish dust blow across the unrelenting desert, we wonder, ‘Why did they put the market here?’ The answer soon becomes obvious. Breaking the monotony of the flat horizon, a huge suspended water tank that is fed from an artesian well can be seen. This source of precious water makes this an ideal location for such a market. From here, most of the beasts will be exported to Egypt and Libya.
As we approach, we are welcomed by smiling Arab shepherds. Each camel owner groups his camels together. We notice that many of the animals have their left front leg tied up in a bent position. Why do they inflict this temporary lameness on their animals? There is a superstition that the left leg belongs to Satan! Superstition notwithstanding, tying one leg does keep the animal from moving about and makes it easier for customers to examine them.
Much Sought After
Why is the camel such a sought-after commodity? Because it is superbly equipped for the hard desert conditions; it serves well as transportation in this arid region. Its long, slitlike nostrils quickly close in a desert storm. Its ears are toward the rear of its head and are filled with hair fringes that keep sand out. Its large hump, composed mainly of fat, serves as food storage during long journeys. Callous pads on its chest and knees protect it from the hot sand and the harmful insects. Furthermore, camels are able to eat the toughest and thorniest desert plants one can find and can journey for several days without drinking water.*
Interestingly, many camels do not serve as transportation. Some are bought simply as investments. Why, until recently, camels were used to pay the bride-price for marriages! Many of these beasts will even end up on the dinner plate. Right in Omdurman itself, a number of eating establishments specialize in grilled camel meat. Another popular dish, a salted camel dish called basturma, is often made from camel meat and is viewed as a delicacy in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.
Little wonder, then, that the Omdurman camel market becomes a flurry of activity when these one-humped Arabian camels are brought in twice a week, mostly from western Sudan. Buyers are virtually mobbed by Arab shepherds who are bent on displaying their respective flocks.
A prospective purchaser will first look the animals over with a trained and critical eye. He will touch the hump to see if there is a healthy store of fat. However, camels are priced according to their size and age. One-year-olds are called heowar, two-year-olds are called mafrood, and wad laboon is the designation for three-year-old camels. The most valuable animals, though, are those that have reached puberty. Females do so at about four years of age, and males at about eight. These are called heek and sudaies respectively. Upon being shown one of these full-grown beasts, the prospective buyer will examine them to determine whether the animal has indeed reached puberty.
Once a camel has won the buyer’s fancy, the bargaining begins. The ability to bargain is an indispensable skill in the Middle East! “Be esm Allah” (By the name of God) are the first words spoken. Now the war of prices begins. The discussions are carried on calmly, without any shouting, and at leisure. If buyer and seller fail to come to an agreement, they conclude simply by saying “Yeftaah Allah” (God will open another opportunity).
We have come to observe, not buy, however. Having stayed but a short time in the blazing noonday heat, we are ready to go home. The camels, though, seem unperturbed by the heat. We are reminded, therefore, of how well adapted these ‘ships of the desert’ are to their environment. No doubt this will mean continued business here at Omdurman’s fascinating camel market!
See the article “The Arabian Camel—Africa’s All-Purpose Vehicle” in the June 8, 1992, issue of Awake!