Kissing camels in response to Mers

The relationship with camels is not what it was yet many fail to understand the importance of camels to modern Gulf society.
Saudi Arabians have posted Twitter photos of themselves kissing camels, like this one by Nawaf Al Hadba'a @nawaf4908 .
Saudi Arabians have posted Twitter photos of themselves kissing camels, like this one by Nawaf Al Hadba'a @nawaf4908 .

“Do you have the coronavirus?” the farmer asks his camel, shaking her snout. “She says ‘no’.”

There has been much discussion this week about the Saudi farmer cuddling his camel in a YouTube video, currently viewed more than 28,000 times. This video, and a handful of Twitter photos with men kissing camels, is the sarcastic response to the Saudi Arabian Government’s decision to remove camels from city centres and its advice to avoid raw camel milk, meat and close contact. The advice could prevent the spread of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) coronavirus.

I only found a handful of such videos and photos. Given that camel owners have a close relationship with their smart phones and social media, these photos are still relatively few in number. The Arabic hashtag #corona_and_thecamels has come to include cartoons and photos with poetry pledging solidarity with camels.

It’s not much of a social media trend but does fit well into orientalist stereotypes of the Arab and his crazed love for camels. The story has been picked up by international media from Australia to the Americas. Most articles aim to put the love for camels in context but its popularity may nonetheless be based on stereotypes.

For people to understand the reluctance and sensitivity governments face when telling people to steer clear of camels, they must begin understand what the camel means beyond the Western cliche of The Bedu and His Camel.

A camel is not a dairy cow but its milk and urine may be drunk to treat and protect against all that ails, from diabetes to cancer.

A camel is not a race horse or a football but sporting events attract tens of thousands of fans.

A camel is not a grandfather’s pocket watch but it is a prized heirloom and a physical reminder of the past in a region where heritage is intangible.

A camel is not a lottery ticket but earns millions for its owner, with a little luck.

A camel is not a diplomat but fosters strong political ties and understanding between states.

A camel is all of these things and more.

Owners give quick sound bite answers when asked why they love camels. “My grandfather loved them.” “Because of tradition.”

It’s abundantly obvious that the relationship between man and camel in the Gulf states is not what it was when men depended on camels for trade and food.

Yet outside camel sporting circles, many fail to understand how deeply important camels are to modern Gulf society. This relationship goes beyond a reminder of the past or an indulgence in hobby farms.

Camels are often compared to pets. I’d argue that a camel is not a pet at all. Animal ownership in the emirates is largely utilitarian and few have genuinely close relationships with individual animals. The camel is enormously respected as a symbol but not considered part of the family like, say, a golden retriever.

Apart from the individual relationship between owner and camel, sporting events are of significant political importance, something I will discuss indepth tomorrow.

As of May 19, the Mers coronavirus claimed 173 lives in Saudi Arabia with deaths in Jeddah, Tabuk, Riyadh, Mecca and Taif.

Stronger communication between health authorities, farm owners and farm workers is needed and this must be done in person.

Few are likely to heed advice from experts who do not spend time at the track. In my experience, owners are often quick to dismiss those ‘from outside‘ - a broad term that can refer to outside the country or the local culture. Preventative measures will only be accepted if supported by respected members of the community.

“There was no chance to listen to the views of the camel owners or coordinate with them,” writes Khalaf Al-Harbi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Jeddah’s Okaz newspaper. “This is probably for two main reasons: Firstly, when faced with the concern over man’s health the importance of any animal decreases to zero point. Secondly, there are no organizations to represent camel owners, traders or breeders.”

Al Harbi, like many, remains skeptical of transmission between camels and owners.

Camels, he says in an article translated by the Saudi Gazette, “are innocent until proven guilty”.

There is ample evidence to show that camels are carriers of the Mers Coronavirus but until scientists show how the virus is transmitted between camel and human, owners will continue to view reports with scorn and it’s unlikely that races, which offer such important political benefits, will be cancelled.

Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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