That seems to be the question of the moment in the Middle East, where a deadly illness has been taking its human toll of late. MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome is gate crashing the ancient relationship between Arabs and their camels. No, not that kind of relationship, more like the one between a cowboy and his horse. With the rise in fatalities due to the coronavirus that sources MERS, the Saudi Arabian government has been sending out advisories to its people to avoid this favored animal of the deserts, the races tracks, and the fabled nomadic routes.
Since 2012, over 100 people in the kingdom and beyond have died of MERS, with recent numbers adding to that total. For some time, scientists have believed that camels transmit the coronavirus to humans and to other camels, but there was not documented evidence to support the hypothesis. Very recently, however, the Virology Institute at Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien, in Vienna has completed a study that not only supports the camel to human assertion but offers additional information on the differences between how the syndrome shows up in different regions. None of this is welcome news in those countries where the camel is, you should pardon me, king.
My first glimpse of camels came at a springtime picnic in Kuwait. The rocky deserts of the tiny Gulf nation erupt into a floral extravaganza for a few short weeks every spring. If you blink, you might miss the spectacle of unexpected color and blooms as they burst forth in areas that throughout the rest of the year are expansively beige. We put up a tent, built a charcoal fire in a demi-drum brought along for that purpose, brewed tea, and heated the precooked chicken. The fluffy saffron rice, also precooked, was still warm in its kettle, ready to be partnered by the chicken and trimmings. Arabs often don’t bother with tables, even in their homes, comfortable cross-legged on the floor with the food spread out on a huge tablecloth, portions of all the offerings placed every couple of feet so no one has to reach very far to get what they need. Picnics are no different, and we tucked into a delicious meal using only our right hands. A little rice, a bit of chicken, some pickled veggies are gathered up and formed deftly into a ball before being popped into the mouth. I wasn’t very deft about it so I may have had recourse to a spoon.
As we ate, a caravan began to pass a quarter mile away, camels spaced out like pearls on a string, a few of them with loads but many unburdened. A couple of Bedouin men walked along in the middle of the pack as it continued to reveal itself in the rise and fall of the hillocks and slopes. Several dozen of the swaying beasts strode across our view, and once we were finished, the men decided to take some leftovers to the Bedouin. Wrapping chicken, rice, and vegetables, they got in the car and headed off in the direction of the men we had seen. As they did so, another member of the family came into view, a young Bedouin woman. She was close enough for us to see her long skirts with colorful geometric embroidery and patterns, a bare head and braids, and a camel prod, which is a long, narrow stick with a bulb at the end. As we watched, one of the herd decided to go walk about. He took off to the right, loping along as if he could choose direction. Immediately, the girl yelled something at him, but he only picked up the pace heading further away from the line of his fellows. In a heart-beat, the young lady took off after him, full tilt. She covered the ground like a gazelle running from a predator, skirts billowing, braids perpendicular. In front of our eyes, her legs ate up ground until, a half a minute later she was close enough to grab the camel’s tail. They are long, as much as two feet. Though she jerked on the tail, yelling epithets in a dialect I couldn’t catch, the camel kept going. So, she applied the stick without losing hold of the tail. Smack went the prod against the animals bony buttocks. Smack, smack!! Again and again, she flailed the animal, yanked its tail, and verbally abused its sensitivities. At last, like he meant to all along, the camel turned and headed back toward the caravan. We sat with our mouths open.
Though most of the nomadic peoples have moved off the desert and into houses since that picnic, the camel, once the source of transportation, commerce, meat, milk, bone, yarn, and leather, is still the bleating [sic] heart of the Arab people. Camels are now primarily bought, sold, and raced like Formula One cars, many of them prized like thoroughbreds or antique Bugattis. To be told that this beloved creature, more essential to the culture than any household pet, is a source of danger and illness is not to be born. Videos and pictures spreading across the social media in the Middle East are witness to the camel revolt.
Refusing to believe the Saudi Ministry of Health
Mid-May, 2014, the World Health Organization sent out their own warning, specifically advising people with certain illnesses, illnesses that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus and thence MERS, to avoid contact with camels. Those most in danger are people with diabetes, kidney problems, immune deficiencies, or CPD. Whether any of these warnings will be heeded by folks who love camels, as in the youtube video link below, remains to be seen. Still, the answer to the question in the title is, unfortunately, “Maybe.”