The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, March 03, 2005

CAMELS: I am informed, by a young Estonian woman of my acquaintance whose veracity in such matters I trust implicitly, that the enterprising tourist can buy no fewer two hundred camels in Andorra for the sum of sixteen euros. As I am not in the habit of buying camels in Andorra, or anywhere else for that matter (I have no prejudices regarding camels that I am aware of, it's just that I have no real need for a camel in the first place and no where to house the beast in the second, and with the price of gasoline and heating oil being what they are at the moment, I feel that I am already supporting enough desert dwellers without actually having one come and live with me) I wondered aloud if sixteen euros for two hundred camels was too much to pay. This was apparently comical in the extreme, although somehow or other I missed the joke entirely, which happens to me alot nowadays—I think it has something to do with the translation; good translations from Estonian are hard to come by nowadays; afterwards someone a little more familiar with the language than I am told me that I’d said something about horseradishes and her mother’s bosom—and she informed me that not only was the price too low for the number of camels involved, but that the low price of Andorran camels causes the French government no end of political and economic consternation. One would not think that camel smuggling would pose a huge problem for French law enforcement; camels are larger than your average automobile and therefore a little hard to disguise as anything other than very large desert dwelling beasts of burden; but this is one of those cases where the commonsense conventional wisdom approach to the problem is neither common, conventional, wise, or sensible. Camel smuggling is a huge problem for the French, in that cheap Andorran camels undercut the market for more expensive French camels.

As mentioned, all this seems a bit counterintuitive to the disinterested observer and to most uninterested ones as well. The ordinary man in the Parisian street does not spend a lot of time thinking about French camels, Andorran camels, or camel breeding in general, not while he has to think about getting across the street before the light changes. If he thinks about animal breeding in the Pyrenees Mountains at all, and what are the chances of that happening in any given day, the first creature he will think of is a large breed of dog. The wide number of species that make this mountain range their home, including the golden eagle and several other exotic species of raptor whose names escape me at the moment, is apt to elude our man in the street, who is trying to elude the large Peugeot truck driven by a man on a very tight schedule coming down the street at twice the posted speed limit; thus does propinquity make provincials of us all.

Most people do not associate camels with mountains, which may be part of the problem. Camels and their relatives have a long and proud tradition of mountain living, a tradition usually eclipsed by the better known tradition of camel as desert dweller popularized by such films as Beau Geste, Lawrence of Arabia, and Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, which makes me wonder if that whole `who's on first' thing works in French. In any case, the lesser-known Bactrian camel, otherwise known as the two-hump camel,is a mountain dweller, Bactria being an ancient name forAfghanistan. This species of camel does not get the press its one humped cousin, the dromedary, gets, and it is probably pretty damned annoyed at that; Christmas dinner with the relatives must be pretty tense at that tent, what with these king sized egos going at it. The camel's cousins, the alpaca and the vicuna, are also proud mountain dwellers; the vicuna is best known for its habit of spitting at strangers and conspiracy theorists. The alpaca spits as well, but usually in when someone tries to fob off Bulgarian champagne for the real thing. Both creatures are otherwise quiet beasts that try not to attract much attention to themselves, a wise course given the unfortunate proclivity of some people of turning both species into clothing. The llama is yet another famous camel related mountain dweller. It spits like the camel and the vicuna, but lacks the camel's distinctive hump(s) and will immediately sit down and refuse to move if it feels overburdened. Once llamas carried all manner of burdens on its back without complaint, leading to its exploitation by North American shipping and trucking interests. This situation changed in the early 1950's when the llamas elected to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a proud moment in Latin American labor history.

This long history does not impress the French, who have camels of their own to sell and do not want to compete with lower priced Andorran camels if they can help it. French protests about Andorran camel dumping are largely nonsense, I think. For all the talk of an integrated European economy, it is clear from its actions that the French government regards certain sectors of its economy to be tooimportant to leave to the whims, vagaries, and occasional lapses of its European partners. Clearly camels, along with defense, steel, wine, and certain types of cheese, fall into this category. France's long involvement in the Middle East have given them a competitive advantage in that market and they don't want outsiders horning in on it. For years they have managed to keep other countries out of the Middle Eastern camel market; the botched 1974 camel deal with Qatar comes immediately to mind. Most people remember the sight of hundreds of Qatar bound Norwegian camels trying unsuccessfully to swim away from the sinking freighter in Trondheim harbor after a mysterious explosion tore a ten foot hole in the side of the ship. Even American attempts to sell camels in a traditionally French market have met with complete failure. The 1965 agreement between Libya, then ruled by the Senussi kings, and the United States fell through when an editorial in Le Monde pointed out that camels originally came to the United States in the 1850's, imported for the American army by the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who later became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite the fact that over 95% of the imported camels remained loyal to the Union during that long and terrible conflict, Le Monde sabotaged the deal by stating that the camels supported the expansion of slavery into the territories won by the United States in the Mexican War, thereby implying that American bred camels were both rabid racists and imperialists of the worst sort. At the time, when European colonies all over Africawere gaining their independence, it was simply not possible for the Libyans to go ahead with the deal.

Given this history, one might think that the French would have no trouble suppressing the Andorran camel traffic. After all, one of Andorra's leaders is the president of France, and one would imagine that he could simply order the Andorrans to cease and desist breeding and exporting cheap camels. You might think this, but you would be the wrongest kind of wrong. Andorra's other leader is the Spanish bishop of a city that you've never heard of, and for the Spanish church Andorran camels represent a source of revenue they are not willing to surrender. The Andorrans began breeding camels with a desert and mountain warfare capability in the early 1920's at the request of the Spanish Army, who needed such multitasking beastsof burden for their campaigns in the Riff Mountains of Morocco. Since the Andorrans were officially neutral, they sold the animals to the Church, who baptized them and then in turn sold them to the Spanish government. The campaign ended, as all campaigns must, but the camels and the breeding farms remained, as does the involvementof the Spanish church in the camel trade. As the French Catholic vote is important to the current center right coalition that governs France, the government must step carefully in dealing with the Church lest they offend potential voters.

For their part, most Middle Eastern countries don't trouble to check for contraband camels; good camels at a cheap price are hard to come by, and they deal with the religious peculiarities of Andorran camels by converting them to Islam, an Ottoman tradition brought up to date. The Ottoman Turks staffed their army and civil service with Christian boys from the Balkans, whom they converted to Islam and who served the sultan in every capacity from simple foot soldier to grand vizier. Andorran camels receive much the same treatment, although there are now people saying that the forced conversion of camels is a violation of their civil rights and that Andorra should not sell camels to the Middle East for just that reason. Since the camel trade is so important to the Andorrans, the majority of the population regards these people as impractical idealists; others think they are French agents deliberately trying to destroy the Andorran economy. And so this sorry and destructive traffic continues.


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