Beautiful beast

The camel is a fascinating creature that can unlock a wealth of regional history. An interview with one of its biggest fans, the author Robert Irwin, whose celebration of all things humped has become an unlikely bestseller in the UK.

A camel looks on during the Mazayin Dhafra Camel Festival in Al Gharbia (the Western Region) of Abu Dhabi.
Powered by automated translation

Rudyard Kipling called it idle. The inventor of the Mini, Sir Alec Issogonis, mocked it as a horse designed by committee. Perhaps no single animal is as misunderstood in the West as the camel - the spitting, biting "ship of the desert" synonymous with the Middle East whose face and form adorns countless T-shirts, keyrings and postcards. But even though a growing international appetite for its milk and meat has done much to raise its popularity of late, as preconceptions remain, on the international stage the modern camel needs some good PR.

An unremarkable street in south London isn't the first place you'd expect to find it. But to walk through the door of the historian Robert Irwin's townhouse is to enter a world where the camel is king. His study is something of a shrine to these strangely alluring beasts: there are postcards, pictures, models and, of course, a packet of Camel cigarettes on the bookshelf. And pride of place on his desk is Camel, his 13th book. "I've been thinking about camels for a long time," he beams. I half expect to find one tethered in the back garden - but then, as the book warns, you need a Dangerous Wild Animal Licence to keep a camel in the UK.

Irwin first proposed a book explaining the camel's huge impact on history a full 25 years ago. "I was thinking purely as a historian back then," he remembers. "It fascinated me that one could relate the way the camel's saddle was placed on its back in the seventh century to the rise of Islam and the Islamic conquests. The creation of the great empires would not have been possible without the tribesmen being able to travel on their camels. A little change in the camel's saddle changed history. Amazing really. The only problem was, the publisher couldn't see the point."

Happily, years later, Reaktion Books could, as long as Irwin melded the history he loved with camel physiology and, most interestingly, its place in culture. It's a lovably eccentric book; not many natural histories begin with a quote from Phoebe from Friends ("do you believe your favourite animal says a lot about you"), before explaining where camels hold their water, investigating their essential role in Arab life and closing with an image of a cigarette packet. But then Reaktion's series - there are similar books on everything from the ant to the whale - does style itself as "a new kind of animal history".

Irwin writes in an endearing, snappy and dryly witty way. He doesn't pretend to be an authority on the camel, but if you want to know how to ward off the advances of a camel with the hump, it's rather lovely to know Irwin's advice: "Rip off your clothes and throw them before him. He may accept this as propitiation."

Such an approach means Camel has received many more positive reviews in the British press than you'd expect a short, if readable, book on the subject to warrant - "erudite, droll and utterly delightful" was how the UK's Independent newspaper described it. Irwin's been something of a star at book events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai leading up to publication earlier this year, and he reveals that Camel will be translated into Arabic too. So what is it about the animal that has been nagging at him for the past 25 years?

"Well, in my writing career I've written an anthology of classical Arabic literature and a history of the Mamluks in Egypt," he says. "I've written about Islamic art, the Alhambra and Sufism. Each time, I'm trying to get to the core of Islamic culture. Camel is like another spoke in that wheel. Camels are part of the air Islamic cultures breathe, and they're also a handy shorthand icon for the Arab Middle East."

And yet for western cultures, the animals are still impossibly exotic. Mediaeval painters - starting with Giotto and Gentile Da Fabriano - plonked camels into paintings to signify their scenes were set somewhere in "the East". "I always find it rather wonderful that the Japanese believed it to be a mythical creature, like a unicorn," adds Irwin. "It took the Dutch East India Company to import a pair to shatter that myth - and even then they were toured around the country for people to look at."

Such links between camels and culture, both in Islamic poetry and western literature, are at the heart of the book. The writings of TE Lawrence and, of course, Kipling, might be an obvious starting point, but it's quotes from the likes of Gustave Flaubert - who mentions camels in Madame Bovary - which really underline how deeply the animal penetrated art. "I never tire of watching this strange beast," Flaubert said. "Oh, to be swaying on the back of a camel."

And many people encounter the camel just as Flaubert did, swaying on its back as part of a day trip to the desert. Even Irwin had only been on a camel once before writing this book - with his young daughter at London Zoo. "Terribly politically incorrect now, of course," he laughs. "But once the book was underway I rode them in Rajasthan and Abu Dhabi. At first it's scary - everyone will tell you it is not very pleasant as the camel raises itself up. But once you're travelling along, it's lovely. Lawrence of Arabia would read Homer on the back of his!"

Irwin is not, however, blind in his affection, writing: "For centuries, Arabs have celebrated the beauty of the camel, even though at the same time some seemed to find something demonic in the creature."

Although he denies having had any bad experience himself, he understands the complexity of the animal: "Well, it's good to be fearful of a camel," he smiles. "A male camel can be as nasty as you can imagine during the rutting period. And I suppose in a certain light, it has a rather evil-looking face, with that flopping lip. There are also the early Islamic traditions - it was said that the places where camels sat down were where jinn haunted."

Irwin has little truck with those who mourn the passing of the camel's other traditional role, with camel herding becoming less and less prevalent. "One could lament that the old tribal ways have disappeared, but in my experience, the tribesmen themselves don't think that at all," he says. "They're relieved that this incredibly hard way of life is over.

"I'll give you an example: I first went out to Abu Dhabi in 1969. I came down through Iran and sailed into a creek with tiny whitewashed houses and Indian traders under awnings. It seemed to me a tiny, quasi mediaeval place. We went out into the desert and a tribesman served us camel milk. He told us he'd performed the Hajj, so we asked how he did the journey with all his camels. And - honestly - he said, 'Oh no, the sheikh paid for me to fly there.'

"That was perhaps a taster of what was to come. I'm actually glad now that the camels are so very well treated. Because of the camel racing in the UAE, which is great fun, they are now pampered beasts, really."

But Irwin knows the role of the camel must continue to change. "My real hope is that it's put to good use in East Africa," he says. "After all, 60 per cent of the world's camels are found there - and if they were herded and reared properly they'd have a very good source of meat and milk in an area where it's incredibly hard to come by."

The most important animal in East Africa - now that would be just the kind of good PR the camel needs.