In a desertifying world short of water, the utilitarian camel, and the ancient cultures that depend on it, offer a way to use land too poor to sustain anything else.
The camel has long had a special place in the imagination of the West, from the Greek historian Herodotus telling a story about Indians using fast-running camels to defeat dog-sized, man-eating ants that guarded gold, through the Three Magi journeying to Christ’s birth, Lawrence of Arabia and the desert chic of Camel cigarettes.
At school you probably learned that the dromedary (shaped like a D) has one hump, and the bactrian (shaped like a B) has two (all very orderly). But perhaps you don’t know that in the first week of their foetal life, all baby camels have two humps. Or that the world’s camel cultures are in crisis. Some camels are threatened with extinction. Others are being slaughtered as pests. Modernity, urbanisation and motorisation are slowly destroying a way of life that has survived for thousands of years.
I recently asked a colleague at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Stefan Sperl, to describe the place of the camel in the Arab imaginative landscape. He said that pre-700 AD, pastoral Bedouin poetry (still highly esteemed in the Arabic and Islamic literary canon) expressed a deep emotional bond between poet and camel. Camel journeys in this poetry have philosophical meanings about the journey through life to death – naturally so, because in the harsh desert the camel is integral to family and community life.
But now camels are being viewed as vermin. Last November, under the headline “Town under siege: 6,000 camels to be shot”, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that trains of camels had invaded the town of Docker, breaking into houses and rooting up water pipes.