By Asher Kohn
SARAYCIK, Turkey -- The bubbling started inside the chest of the larger of the two camels. It rose through his neck, sounding like a cauldron, and his purplish tongue poked out. Foam started pouring out of his mouth. It looked as if he had just swallowed an espresso machine.
"Look at him stand straight. He'll be a great one some day."
A simmer -- more tea kettle than cauldron -- started up in the smaller camel, who exuded a languid cockiness while he looked up at his larger counterpart. He reminded me of Joey Votto standing in the box with men in scoring position.
"He'll be OK," a mustachioed man replied. "But you should hope that my Kömürcü has stopped fighting by then."
Kömürcü was then on his way to a weekend wrestle. The 18-year-old camel out of Çanakkale spent his Sunday competing for a prize of 50,000 lira, or about $25,000.
Kömürcü, named "charcoal" for his sooty appearance, will be 21 by the time this calf is ready to fight. That's old for a camel, since like boxers their joints can only take so much rough and tumble. But nobody who has seen him fight doubts he will be up to it.
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In order to get to Kömürcü's hometown competition, you take the "Village Unity" bus to Sarayçık, population 549 in the 2000 census. The nice thing about small-town events is it's easy to find the arena -- even in this case, when the arena is just a dusty flat expanse slowly turning into mud, a few miles from the bus stop.
There is what looks to be a haphazard pile of mildewed furniture outside the parking lot. Upon closer inspection, it is a camel -- rested and ready to fight.
Camel wrestling is a fairly straightforward sport. Two camels square off in a ring and each uses his shoulders and neck to knock their opponent on his side. Copious amounts of camel drool are the primary byproduct and injuries are rare.
Straightforward, yet not without its peculiarities. Although camel wrestling is a self-described local sport, camels are not native to southwestern Turkey. The camels wear about 20 pounds of handmade felted and knitted decorations, often festooned with local sponsorships. And, of course, these are camels we're talking about. They often act like giant cats, and it is difficult to get them to do anything they don't want to do -- up to and including fighting other camels.
The mustachioed man had all of the answers.
"Camel whisperer" is not a widely recognized job title, so Ogün Kırlıoğlu's business cards name him as "President of the 18 March Çanakkale Camel Owners' Association." He is responsible for the health and welfare generally of the 70 or so camels in Çanakkale province and for making sure that they all get to fight and represent the province in interprovincial or national events. It's a full-time job, with an office to boot.
The office is on the second floor of a white-tiled fish market, with the requisite fish smells and overweight cats. Down on the first floor, an ever-rotating group of older men drank tea, talked camels and kept the guard dog away from Ogün's assistant, Müjdat, who may be a 6-foot-2 grizzled, chain-smoking shepherd, but is terrified of dogs. The dog is somewhat unnecessary, since the tea drinkers slow anyone walking up the stairs by demanding they sit, smoke, drink and talk camels. They can be easily distracted by asking, loudly, who owns the strongest camel in Çanakkale.
Ogün sat in a resplendent Jim Tressel-red vest, an enormous gold watch and several rings, one with an Ottoman tughra on its face. None of this -- nor the mustache, obviously -- separated him from any other provincial bureaucrat in Turkey. His enthusiasm, however, does.
"When I was young I loved animals," he said. "I went to a beautiful camel wrestling match in Ezine [a nearby province] with my whole family one day, and holding the camel halter in my hand, I became curious about camels." It took more than curiosity to become president, though, and Ogün describes the political wrangling needed to set up matches, keep camel owners happy with their roles and their camels' and make sure everything is on the up-and-up with the veterinary and state authorities.
Among the most complicated things to monitor is the purchase of camels. Camels born in Turkey do not make the best fighters -- a common reason given is they need to feel sorrow for their homeland in order to fight well. So instead, fighting camels are imported. How? Well, these are camels, Ogün explained. They get places on foot. Even if they come from eastern Iran? Yes, of course. Even if the trip is 3,200 kilometers and will take more than a month? They are camels. This is what they do.
The camels don't care, and the distance maybe weeds out some of the weaker animals. February was full of concern over a caravan in Tokat and some promising camel calves not taking to the walk. Camel buyers and trainers were working the phones and looking at charts in a manner reminiscent of a trade deadline.
Kömürcü was one of these acquisitions 18 years ago. He is a Tülü, a product of a one-humped dromedary and two-humped Bactrian that grows to be larger than both and has an orneriness all its own. Ogün decided to purchase the promising mongrel for nine million lira. If that sounds like a lot, the Turkish lira was the world's least valuable currency in 1995, and all those millions are equal to about 400 of 2013's lira or $200. That, plus the 600-lira monthly cost for food, bed and salary for Kömürcü's caretaker, Mustafa, means the camel is as much a lottery ticket as an investment. There are only 12 or so events a year, since they can take place only during the mating season: The camels need the inspirational scent of a female camel in heat in order to draw up enough ire to fight. And the 10,000-250,000 lira purses are sought after by about 1,500 camels throughout the country.
This is done as much for love as money, and when one sees Ogün with Kömürcü it's obvious the camel is as much a part of the family as Ogün's 16-year-old son. As for Mustafa, his full name as given on Facebook is "Mustafa Kömürcü."
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So on a gray winter day, Ogün, Mustafa and Kömürcü stretched their legs on the clay outside Sarayçık. Flatbed trucks surrounded a rough circle of police tape, but neither would be used for their intended purposes once the matches began and the crowd thickened. Then families set up lawn chairs on the flatbeds to watch, while the police tape marked out a space about 30 yards wide. The camels, clad in vibrant colors with their tails tucked away, their mouths muzzled and bells between their shoulders, remain leashed near their owners and caretakers until they're allowed in the ring.
The music cut out. A booming voice came on through the PA system. "Are the camels ready for wrestling today?"
The ensuing clanging of bells was probably less in response to the hype man and more a result of the 50 male camels hanging out in the morning fog able to smell, but not see, a lady camel hidden behind a trailer. The foaming at the mouth was definitely in response to the lady camel hidden behind a trailer.
The first two camels, from nearby Çan and Lapseki, put on a decent scrap. The Çan camel seemed to have a longer neck, which he kept trying to wrap around the front left leg of his Lapsekian foil. His probes were parried by his opponent's neck in moves that almost look more like fencing than wrestling. These movements resulted in foamy camel spittle getting everywhere, and it soon became obvious that if one is to get involved in the camel wrestling world, one must become comfortable with the stuff.
The hype man seemed pleased with the early matches, save for the one where the camels refused to fight. "OK…" he intoned into the mic, sounding a bit like a peeved teenager. One camel strutted around as if at a dog show, while his caretaker and a few other men turned red with embarrassment and tried to drag him toward his semi-squatting opponent.
"These camels are lazy! They do not want to fight today," came the voice from the PA, and part of the crowd chuckled at the intransigent animals, while others booed in a distinctly Turkish style.
At Ogün's table, the men brought their own grill, fruit and rakı. Although a vendor nearby did brisk business in camel sausage sandwiches, Ogün instead ate lamb and chicken shish kebabs. Özgür Mustafa, a local camel, was pummeled by a camel from Ayvacık, and when his head hit the ground the men at the table started laughing and exchanged money on their bets. It took about eight men to separate the camels in the ring; Özgür Mustafa left with a distinct look of disappointment on his muzzled face.
Kömürcü finally faced off against a camel from Bergama decorated in traditional red dyes mixed with high-visibility yellow. The drumbeat got louder, as the roving bands who were playing Romany music had shifted to something a bit more martial when Ögun handed them money. This was not a boxing match, and camels are not good strategists, so when their handlers let go of the reins the two animals ran into each other.
Ogün's camel was thrown into the ropes. Since "the ropes" in this case were police tape, they did not exactly hold the one-ton Kömürcü in, and fans and musicians both were sent scuttling. Kömürcü was unbowed, though, and took the fight back to his opponent using an almost-MMA technique and sticking close to the ground. The wrestling soon devolved into shuffling in the clay, as the handlers watched through dust and spittle.
After a few minutes of this dusty grappling, the musicians built the ney and violin into a crescendo as the drumbeat quickened. Kömürcü, it seemed, was getting the upper hand. Table talk ceased, and Ogün and his friends craned their necks optimistically.
What followed was an acceptance of the inevitable, as Kömürcü's opponent -- on one knee already -- toppled over from exhaustion, from Kömürcü's skill and from the top-heaviness of his decorated hump. Ogün shook hands and communicated wordlessly with Mustafa (as well as Kömürcü, probably) from afar.
While Kömürcü was led out of the ring -- he walked proudly, almost daintily -- rain started to fall. Kömürcü received a tarp and Ogün got a camel owner's orange-and-white chafiye. The unofficial uniform of the middle-aged Turkish men who made up the vast majority of the audience included a golf cap, while the younger crowd made do with either scarves or masculinity, whichever was in greater supply.
The rain did not damper the men's spirits, but it did seem to have an effect on the camels. The afternoon's matches were a bit more lethargic and the musicians tucked away their instruments.
Kömürcü has protected his reputation. With a tarp covering his back, his bubbling calmed down to the point where a muzzle was no longer necessary. He was still foam- and clay-speckled, but that was because he is a camel, and nobody ever washes a camel. Victorious yet again, he still has years before retirement and nobody seems quite sure just what camel retirement would mean. Hopefully not, in this case, camel sausage. More likely, it means days of lolling about and grouching at young upstarts. For a camel like Kömürcü, camel heaven looks a lot like earth.
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Asher Kohn lives in Turkey and usually writes about sports and land use, though never at the same time. He has written for Sports Illustrated, The Classical and Roads & Kingdoms and can be found at @AJKhn.