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The Saga of Jimmy Carter’s Camel: Southern (Egypt) Hospitality

September 1, 1988

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ The guards at the U.S. Embassy, on alert for suicide car bombers and other terrorists, were perplexed this week when a pickup truck approached the iron gate with a pink-ribboned camel peering from the rear.

They stopped the driver and shouted at him in Arabic: ″It’s forbidden 3/8 It’s forbidden 3/8″

After a few minutes of negotiations, the heavy gate swung open and in came Jimmy Carter’s camel - an example of southern (Egypt) hospitality.

The saga began the weekend of Aug. 17, when Egyptian officials telephoned wealthy camel trader Abdel-Wahab Waguih and told him the former U.S. president and his wife, Rosalynn, would be visiting suburban Cairo’s sprawling camel market.

The Carters and seven relatives arrived Aug. 18 for a two-day private visit to cap an African tour. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said Mrs. Carter specifically selected the camel market for sightseeing along with the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx.

At the market, in the suburb of Imbaba, traders noisily bargain to sell camels earlier bought from Sudanese owners, who trek with the animals for about 40 days across Sudan’s desert before bringing them by train from southern Egypt to Imbaba. Once sold, the animals are used as a beasts of burden or are slaughtered for meat.

Waguih was instructed to show the Carters around and give them a flavor of Egyptian business.

But he also gave the Carters two silver daggers, a bunch of genuine Sudanese camel whips - and the 6-year-old camel, a pink ribbon tied around his neck, worth between $560 and $740.

He said his gift-giving was typical of ″Saeedi″ - the hospitality shown by people from southern Egypt.

His generosity went so far as wanting to honor his guests by slaughtering a sheep at Carter’s feet, a traditional Moslem act of welcome, ″but the American Embassy people told me not to,″ he said. ″Carter wouldn’t like it.″

Although he accepted the huge animal, Carter told the embassy he couldn’t take it home to Plains, Ga., and instead wanted to give it to Sister Emmanuelle, a French nun who works with Cairo’s garbage collectors, the zabaleen.

Nobody came to pick up the beast for 10 days, and Waguih said he became impatient.

″I took it to the embassy in a van. There were guards at the door, but I don’t care, I’m not afraid,″ he said, recounting the Monday incident at the embassy as he sat outside his office at the market with 10 relatives.

An embassy official signed a receipt for the camel and dispatched an Egyptian employee with Wagih to deliver it to al-Muqattam mountain, where thousands of zabaleen live and where Sister Emmanuelle has set up a school, a health center and a veterinary clinic.

″The camel is now out of our hands,″ said the embassy spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. ″It’s up to Sister Emmanuelle to decide what to do with it, to sell it or have it slaughtered for meat.″

The Roman Catholic nun had no comment except ″I still don’t know″ the camel’s fate.

For the zabaleen, accustomed to donkeys, pigs and sheep, the camel provided a spectacle but not much enthusiasm - or appetite.

″We aren’t used to eating camel meat in this area,″ said Yanni Rizk, a worker at the nearby Cairo slaughterhouse, explaining it is an area without camel butchers.

″It’s a joke,″ said Sister Juliana, an Egyptian nun who helps Sister Emmanuelle at her health center. ″They’ll probably sell it and put the money into the vet center. Otherwise, the camel requires money for food and care, and we have no place to keep it.″

The beast, meanwhile, stands waiting in the vet center courtyard, the pink ribbon still around its neck.