Clash of the camels!

On Turkey's Aegean coast, the venerable sport of camel-wrestling relieves winter's monotony.

Published March 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

NAZILI, Turkey -- Bells clank in the distance, and a rhythmic chiming gets closer as men with berets, stout guts and weathered skin like leather lead their camels into the ring. The sound of Zeybek music -- a squeak reminiscent of a kazoo, made by a wooden flute-type instrument and a drum -- is carried on the growing wind. Locals say it's the music that makes the camels dance.

The clouds are turning dark, threatening rain. Yet thousands of people, some in makeshift bleachers, others sitting in beds of trucks surrounding the ring, have flocked from villages on the outskirts of Nazili, about 170 miles southwest of the Turkish port city of Izmir, and other parts of Turkey's western Aegean to see this winter spectacle.

Under a rainbow of umbrellas, they munch treats from their picnic stashes and sip raki, the Turkish national alcohol, a licorice-flavored aperitif that turns billowy white when mixed with water and incites its imbibers to kick up their heels in sweeping folk dances.

In contrast to their owners, the camels are dressed in their finest: elaborately woven, beautifully colored tapestries; bright reds, blues, greens, pinks and oranges that cover their two humps, shifting slightly as the camels' front legs move elegantly forward, as if they are dancing through water. Their bums carry a banner announcing their name and "Masallah" -- the Turkish idiom that means, "May Allah protect you from the evil eye."

"Their get-ups cost about $3,000," notes Ali Onal, who had introduced his camel, also named Onal, to me the day before. As Ali talks, Onal the camel gives him a sloppy, frothy kiss. Thousands of dollars may seem a high price to pay for one suit of camel clothes, but it's on a par with the worth of the beasts. The camels, which are bred in Iran, cost about $25,000 apiece.

The announcer barks two contestants' names over the scratchy sound system: "Gozluklu (Spectacles) from Soke will wrestle Faruk from Antalya."

Through the air rings a high-pitched "Kuhhh, kuhhh, kuhhh" -- like a nail across a blackboard. This is the sound of camels grinding their teeth, which are covered before they challenge their opponents, so that no blood will spill.

The camels are released into the ring and the match begins. The two animals lean into one another, using the might of their back legs and their weight to try to force the opponent to its knees. Then each uses its weight and long neck to pin the opponent's head down. Whether or not Gozluklu is nearsighted, in short order he's pinned Faruk's head on the ground between his front legs. In this position, the camels are locked together like Siamese twins, making it hard to decipher where one ends and the other begins.

The spectators in the stands leap to their feet, chanting "Gozluklu, Gozluklu." One boy, overwhelmed with excitement, sweeps a rolled-up poster in his hand toward the action. "Come on, son! Come on!" he yells.

Great deep groans issue from somewhere in the wrestling hold, and white froth, like the head of a badly poured beer, flies from the camels' mouths through the air. This hovers in the air like soap bubbles or arcs onto the ground; soon splotches of it cover the muddy ring. The announcer, squatting with his cordless microphone just inches away from the beasts, flails his free arm up and down. "It's down, it's down, it's down! Yes, Gozluklu is the champ!"

Then a primordial tug of war ensues between beast and man: It takes 20 men to pull the camels apart. Ten men stand in a line behind each camel. The leaders expertly lasso one of each of the camel's front legs. On cue, with all hands grasping the length of the rope, they heave each 2,000-pound beast away from its opponent.

These men spend a good part of the day running in circles around the wrestling camels, always keeping vigil with their ropes, lest two clashing camels tumble into the crowd. At one point there is a close call, but a wave of spectators undulates out of the way in the nick of time.

One hundred forty camels are wrestling today, one match at a time lasting up to eight minutes, with the next two sets of contestants galloping around the periphery of the rink. No one is really a loser here. The victors win the equivalent of $140 plus a carpet; the losers win $85. But because camel owners represent an elite class of villagers in Turkey, all the money, including the revenue from ticket sales, goes to schools or hospitals. "Camel wrestling isn't a job," says Ali Onal proudly. "It's a tradition from my father and my grandfather, so I give all the money away."

To prepare for the matches, the owners have the camels on a walking regime for two months prior to the beginning of wrestling season in November. They walk them about eight miles a day the first month, working up to 12 miles. Their food intake in winter is minimal: four and a half pounds of veggies and half a gallon of water per day.

In the offseason, on the other hand, the camels are pampered pets. They consume enormous quantities of vegetables and about 13 gallons of water. During their 30-year life span, they will wrestle from the age of 7 until they're 20.

According to local legend, Turkish camel-wrestling dates back 150 years to a time when two agas, or wealthy landowners, turned the male camels' winter mating ritual into sport. By nature, or more precisely, by the male hormonal drive, camels wrestle each other over the nearest female in heat.

At least one camel owner today is deferring to his camel's natural instincts. He's brought along a female friend, who walks next to her male counterpart as he readies for the match, frothing happily at the mouth.

Camel owners insist that their beasts are extremely intelligent, never forget and are fiercely loyal to those they like. "When one of our camel owner friends died, his camel cried," maintains Alkan Demirtas, who hails from nearby Mugla. "Camels are like angels," he continues lovingly.

"India has its sacred cow. For us, it's the camel. The prophet Mohammed rode one from Medina to Mecca," adds camel owner Tayfun Bayir.

Camel loyalty apparently extends to other animal species. One camel is accompanied by a compact little donkey, its cheerleader of sorts, which is led in the camel's view while it wrestles. "He's the camel's buddy. When the camel sees its donkey friend, he feels more courage and confidence," explains one camel-wrestling fan.

Friendships aside, camel owners say their two-humped animals have dramatically affected the quality of their lives. "My life changed. I've met a lot of people and friends, and it gives me good luck," says Demirtas.

"It's our tradition, it's from our ancestors," says a fan who travels up and down the Aegean coast during winter weekends to catch the matches in different towns. "Americans have eagles, Russians have bears, the Turkish nation has camels," adds another fan as he sips his raki. "Being Turkish," he says, pausing for effect, "is being a camel!"

While not every Turk may agree, the villagers in the Aegean region of Turkey eagerly look forward to the matches as an oasis from the wet winter monotony.

By Laurie Udesky

Laurie Udesky is an award-winning San Francisco based reporter. An earlier article she wrote for Salon, “No School Nurses Left Behind,” earned an award from the Association of Health Care Journalists.

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