Arts, Culture & Media

Camel wrestling ... Yes, it's a real thing

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Camels and wrestling. Yes, the two can go together. Male camels can weigh as much as a ton. In Turkey, the animals are trained to square off in bouts of strength and skill. They do this before crowds numbering in the tens of thousands.

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As camels are tall, lumbering creatures, you don't want to get in their way. They can move surprisingly quickly, especially when two are locking necks, almost like a double helix, as they try to overpower each other.

Turkey's largest camel wrestling tournament is held annually here in Secluk a market town of about 20,000 people.

Camels are naturally pretty docile creatures, but get more agressive during mating season. So, that’s when competitions are held.

Female camels aren’t welcome at the events – if they were here, things might get really serious. With about 130 male camels -- and tens of thousands of drunken spectators -- these camels are riled up enough.

“When the tension comes, the camels get angry, they feel the anger and so they want to fight,” said Ahmet Sarsilmaz, who has been training camels for 15 years and finds them to be sensitive, intelligent creatures.

Camels have long been critical to the economic development of this area. They carried crops like olives and figs to nearby seaports. When the railroads came about 150 years ago, camels had less practical use, so people who were fond of raısıng them had to fınd other reasons to keep them.

Now it's a local tradition. Local attorney Gokhan Sertcelik says he's been coming to these bouts since he was six. He says many people here revere camels almost like sports heros.

“I've seen lots of people when their favorite camels was beaten they were crying. I've seen many scenes like that. It's not about gambling it's about love,” he said.

The rules are simple. There’s no point system. If a camel is forced to his knees, he loses. If a camel runs away – the braver camel wins. Or, if a camel cries out in fright, that also ends the match.

Animal welfare groups have complained about this sport, but there's no organized opposition. Efforts were made to reach out to a few animal rights activists in Turkey, but none returned requests to comment.

But locals defend the sport. Ahmet Sogutcu, a former organizer, argues camel wrestling is neither inhumane nor a bloodsport.

“They don’t hurt each other. If you see, their mouths are covered, they have no chance to bite. This is not camel fight, this is wrestling,” he said.

For wealthy locals, owning a camel can be the ultimate status symbol. It can cost around $10,000 a year to keep one. And there’s no cash prize for winning an event.

The pay off is prestige over what Sogutcu describes as bragging rights.

“It is like a social competition,” he said.

But it’s also an excuse to throw a big party.

There are probably 20,000 people at the event. Booze vendors are doing a roaring trade, selling liquor by the bottle. Groups of men – it's mostly men here – sit together on long tables grilling meats and toasting each other with raki, Turkey's most cherished hard alcohol.

Most of the men are Muslim, by the way. The Koran forbids alcohol, but drink is still an integral part of Turkish culture.

Men from the region enjoy traveling the camel wrestling circuit – it gives them a chance to get out of their hometowns and cut loose.

“They drink all day and night long, they get drunk because nobody knows them,” said Sogutcu “So, nobody will say you are bad, you are this, you are that. So when they return to their small society they are still seen as good father, good man, good  friend. It’s like that.”

There’s also a lot meat being grilled here, camel meat. Tourists like Robert Lloyd, a Londoner who teaches English in Istanbul, was keen to try it and even bought a couple pounds as a souvenir.

“It tastes like camel smell which is kind of off-putting but they spice it really well so it's good. I'm a fan,” he said.

Besides the wrestling and drinking and eating, there’s also a bit of pageantRy and music. Bands of mostly Roma Gypsy musicians entertain the crowds. People stuff cash in their instruments* as tips.

The day before the wrestling match, there was also a beauty contest... for camels dressed in their best finery.

*Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that the instrument played at the camel wrestling event was a clarinet. It may instead be a zurna. Thanks to a listener for pointing this out.

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