Camel Wrestling

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul. Once one lays eyes on the magical skyline, the sight is never forgotten.

Forget that familiar, beatific, mellow picture on the cover of the cigarette pack. Put aside those lingering images of the sensuous East so popular with Victorian Orientalists. Elbowing up to the steel fence around a camel wrestling pitch in Turkey and I suppose anywhere is more like spending an afternoon with the good old boys at a NASCAR rally in the broiling sun of the American Deep South than snoozing on a divan with a plump, warm odalisque.

One moment these enormous, improbably beasts are strolling aimlessly, filling the still air with glistening cobwebs of sticky snot…

Camel wrestling.

One moment these enormous, improbably beasts are strolling aimlessly, filling the still air with glistening cobwebs of sticky snot and more obviously providing material for cartoonists than anything else. Next moment, with a thought-provoking clang, they effortlessly break out of the arena, taking down a big section of heavy pipe barrier, sending the spectators scurrying off for the territories and themselves hurrying horizon ward.

Decked out Camel
Fancy livery, huge lips, limid eyes, enormous lashes – the real Joe Camel!

The exotic sport of camel wrestling is especially well represented in the ox-bow area created by the meeting of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and along until about even with Cyprus.  .  .

 

Camels exist throughout Turkey and up through Afganistan and the Russian steppes, but the exotic sport of camel wrestling is especially well represented in the ox-bow area created by the meeting of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and along until about even with Cyprus. Some camels may be kept as a sort of nostalgia, in the way people keep horses, and many camels still do practical labor. Wrestling camels, though, are said to be hybrids. The so-called “Tulu” resulting from this cross breeding is apparently cranky as a matter of principle, and especially alert and concerned about dames. So, by the expedient of parading a comely female camel about in a big space elsewhere populated by a pair of said tulus, a sport was born. Four styles evolved: ayak, basalti, orta, and bas, but ortais just about extinct.

By the expedient of parading a comely female camel about in a big space elsewhere populated by a pair of said tulus, a sport was born. Four styles evolved: ayak, basalti, orta, and bas . . .

No doubt the obvious parallels between human and camel behavior help make the event so interesting. In fact, last season one camel, named Bill Clinton, was pitted with another, Sadam Houseinafter the exhibition of a cute thing named Monica.(Records do not verify the sale of cigars to the crowd.) Unlike a rugger bar, beer plays no part in the mayhem at these matches. The males almost immediately close

Camel Corps
Camels have a terrific history, as this mounted section at Beersheba.

for combat. They leave aside their absurd looking and remarkably asinine splayed rear leg-resting stance and transform themselves into powerful looking, impressive creatures. Proving the ancients right—that few things focus the mind of a male like the front end of a weapon or the bottom end of a female—wrestling camels trot forward and collide at battle speed. From the looks of it, they use their enormously strong and flexible necks to duel with each other, at the same time pushing and shoving with their chests.

Playing it Safe

Fortunately for one another, tying their mouths shut with strong string is one of the most important chores involved with preparing the camels to wrestle. Fortunately that is because when they are not trying to crush each other to a jam-like pulp with their great weight, they are trying to lop off each other’s scrotums with their chisel-sized choppers.

Parked Camel
The complicated camel saddles fit together like Chinese puzzles.

 

One great eccentric dedicated his book to a favorite camel, considering on the whole the shaggy tribe to be somewhat superior in both stamina and morals to most men.

 

Spend some time in the wonderful reading room of London’s Royal Geographical Society, redolent in that moody aroma of old books slowly turning to dust and memories of otherwise forgotten heroes, and you can run into dozens—maybe hundreds—of tales of camel daring do. One great eccentric dedicated his book to a favorite camel, considering on the whole the shaggy tribe to be somewhat superior in both stamina and morals to most men. However pale that complimentary comparison might be, it’s not shared by the Americans dealing with camels back before the Civil War.

Camels in the American West

These cowboys were not the tepid spoiled spawn of a Hollywood elite faying about with wheel guns borrowed from central props. The authentic article of that time was most likely part of the marginalized muck from the fringes of an itself squalid frontier “society.” Squaw flayers, sheep shaggers, rascals of the first order, they adored the horses they’d fallen heir to after the Spanish introduced the stock. A farsighted visionary (not so prescient that he didn’t make the signal error of fighting for the South later) pointed out that camels were better fitted for that climate than their current fragile mounts. And better eating, it can be said, if push came to shove. Might just as well have tried today to convince a similar group of characters that babes at the beach should give up string bikinis for tank suits because the full body version is better for swimming when indeed they are. Perhaps camel wresting might have given the cowboys a single thing to like about the animals in that experiment. But there is no evidence that they gave the sport a try. Or, for that matter, that they gave the camels a fair shot at competing with their steeds.

A farsighted visionary (not so prescient that he didn’t make the signal error of fighting for the South later) pointed out that camels were better fitted for that climate than their current fragile mounts. And better eating, it can be said, if push came to shove.

Back at the festival, a group of judges, vastly familiar with the sport and bringing all the Turkish capacity for investing infinite care in the minutia of details, watches the match between struggling camels. They pair up the contestants based on past performance, stature, and wrestling style. And they keep a collective eye on the urganci, or teams of rope workers. These 14 men rush in to grapple with the wrestling camel’s necklines to break up the fight the instant a winner is decided. Once a competitor gets the upper hand, or more properly, neck, momentum swings his way quickly. He’d try to grind the other to China except for the clash being broken apart by the rope men and no one is there to see these exciting and valuable animals actually hurt.

Turkish Flag
The Turkish Flag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The camel who wins prospers and is pampered, and the owner takes the cash reward – though the loser is treated hardly less well: patted and baby-talked, crooned-to about his hurt feelings more like a puppythan a massive, powerful beast. Informal competitions have been largely replaced with commercial endeavor, leisure as commodity processed and sold to the public with all the trimmings of public performance. As with English tattoos and American rodeos, audiences enjoy the playing at history these events offe

 

Would a tattoo be complete without buskers hawking Styrofoam red hats and bamboo swagger sticks? A rodeo without vac-u-formed Stetsons, Taiwanese Indian headdresses, and vinyl bolero ties?

 

Would a tattoo be complete without buskers hawking Styrofoam red hats and bamboo swagger sticks? A rodeo without vac-u-formed Stetsons, Taiwanese Indian headdresses, and vinyl bolero ties? Exactly so, vendors wander the hillside crowds at the wrestling matches dealing cheap camel drover scarfs and “authentic“ dizgor—the brass bells which line each side of the camel’s decorative gear– turned out in their dozens by little kids in India. While teams race

Camel
The huge, powerful, by all accounts ornery yet often well loved critter.

across the cinder with their limbered screw guns, and a loco cowhand bobs atop a half ton of annoyed bull, and Billand Sadam kick, push, and shove the crowd watches. Shop keepers turn into brigadiers, kids in plastic cowboy hats dream of moving their little doggies along, and Murat and Ali, temporarily turbaned mechanics, imagine a doe eyed temptress waiting at the end of the Silk Road.

Sometimes a loop of chain is thrown around the bent knee of a squatting camel, to force the obstinate thing to stay still while it’s outfitted with elaborate garb.  Most are decked with the traditional havuc, karabas yular, andboyun tasmasi(saddle, wool halter, neck collar), the pesi, dizgor, and the boncuklar . . .

Camels finished with their match or those waiting to go into the ring, rest at their chains outside, tethered to steel stakes hammered deeply into the sandy soil. Sometimes a loop of chain is thrown around the bent knee of a squatting camel, to force the obstinate thing to stay still while it’s outfitted with elaborate garb.  Most are decked with the traditional havuc, karabas yular, andboyun tasmasi(saddle, wool halter, neck collar), the pesi, dizgor, and the boncuklar (the decorative rear cover, row of bells on each side, and the colorful covers of the front legs). Just foreword of the saddletree, which fits together around the camel’s torso like a Chinese puzzle, hangs the Evanor heavy bell in a bell device which used to help the pack string maintain contact on starless desert nights. Today it helps announce the imminent matches to the locals and to whip up enthusiasm for the fights.

Owners, handlers, and tag alongs of all stripe kick the dirt, talk shop, and chow down on the heavy bulgur pastry soaked in treacle common to these gatherings. Betting is abundant, wagering taking place on all aspects of the spectacle from order of performance to outright winner. Stacks of outlandishly denominated Turkish cash flow from palm to palm, surging back and fourth in rhythm with the matches.

Turkey
Turkey 

They say cold weather puts the Tulus in mind of hot gals, so the wrestling is mostly a winter sport. In spite of similarities between this and other entertainment spectacles, camel wresting retains a special quality of weirdness. Cock fighters will agree that it’s not the bird in the fight but the fight in the bird. But camel wrestlers set their pairs to fighting with an impromptu poem.

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