Into the arena for camel wrestling in Turkey

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People attend the Selcuk Camel wrestling festival in the town of Selcuk, near the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir, on January 20, 2019. (AFP / BULENT KILIC)
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A boy leaves the arena with a camel after winning a fight during the Selcuk Camel wrestling festival in the town of Selcuk, near the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir, on January 20, 2019. (AFP / BULENT KILIC)
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Wrestling camels fight at the Pamucak arena during the annual Selcuk-Efes Camel Wrestling Festival in the Aegean town of Selcuk, near Izmir, Turkey, on January 20, 2019. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
Updated 24 January 2019

Into the arena for camel wrestling in Turkey

  • Camel culture in Turkey dates back to the Yoruks, a nomadic people whose ancestors were the ancient warrior Selcuks
  • Animal rights groups often call for the fights to end, denouncing them as cruel

SELCUK, Turkey: Erol Bilgin has high hopes. His camel, Kara Elmas (Black Diamond), might not have won the beauty contest the day before, but it might well fare better in the main event, the wrestling competition.
The two large camels stand face to face, sizing each other up, before throwing themselves head-first at one another.
Each animal struggles to bite its adversary’s feet to topple them, their long necks interlocking as the crowd cheers.
More than 2,000 people, many settled around little tables for picnics, spur on their favorite to win.
There are boos too, for those owners down in the arena who intervene too much in the matches.
The contests take place in the western Turkish town of Selcuk, at a site just a few minutes from the Aegean coast.
In the fighting arena that day, 124 camels wrestled each other in short duels — part of a centuries-old Turkish tradition.
Camel culture in Turkey dates back to the Yoruks, a nomadic people whose ancestors were the ancient warrior Selcuks, who arrived in Anatolia during the 11th century.
The first camel fight was formally organized in the region around the 1830s, says Devrim Erturk, an academic at Dokuz Eylul University in Selcuk.
As the nomads settled, the camels were used for the transport of goods, mainly toward the western ports of Turkey.
“And the cameleers started to make their camels fight” in the places they stopped at in the region, Erturk said.
He himself owns several camels, including a two year-old male that he wants to see wrestle in the arena.
Nearly 90 such events have been organized to take place in the region from Canakkale in the northwest to Antalya in the southwest between December and March.
This is the reproductive season for camels — when the males who fight are naturally more aggressive — and a quieter period for residents, as agricultural activity slows in the winter.
<b>“Cruel culture”</b>
Animal rights groups often call for the fights to end, denouncing them as cruel.
But everyone at the arena insisted that all necessary measures are taken to protect the camels, including tying a cord around their mouth to limit the opening and biting.
“For a cameleer, their camel is very precious... so the owners do all they can to ensure no harm comes to (their animal),” said Erturk.
“Many carry the name of the cameleer’s children. My father gave my name, Devrim, to one of his camels.”
The Selcuk festival, one of the most important, is held every year on the third weekend of January.
One of those in the audience is Abdullah Altintas, who has come to watch with his wife, Nilgun.

“My father and grandfather had camels, it’s an ancestral tradition. Alas, I don’t have any but I go to see all the duels,” he told AFP.
<b>Beauty contest and wrestling</b>
On the first day, there was the beauty contest, on the second, the main event — the wrestling.
That first day, owners paraded their champions through the town for local people to see.
The camels crossed the market dressed in colorful fabrics with their names embroidered on, garlands of bells and the Turkish flag.
Bilgin, from the nearby Mugla province, caressed his nine year-old camel Kara Elmas, whom the jury had not favored this time in the beauty contest.
“Obviously each person believes their camel is the most beautiful,” he says.
The two spend around 10 hours a day together, adds Bilgin, picking a straw from the thick fur of his camel, who he describes as “calm, respectful and sensitive.”
Selcuk mayor Dahi Zeynel Bakici is a champion of the festival. “Camel culture has declined, but we want to keep it going,” he told AFP.
To this end, in addition to the fights, an international symposium had been organized in Selcuk for the third year in a row, with around 100 participants.
The aim, said Bakici, is to continue the traditions in order to eventually secure a coveted place on the UNESCO list recognizing intangible cultural heritage.
<b>Camel meat</b>
The next morning, in the dark warehouse where Kara Elmas has spent the night, Bilgin makes sure everything is fine.
Because of the long distance they traveled the day before, his camel was “a little agitated but here he was able to relax before the fight,” he says.
“He knows what happens next.”
Around the arena, people stroll between the camels and the grilled sausage stands — all certified “100-percent camel meat.”
From early on in the day, the mostly-male audience enjoys their picnic with a glass of raki, a strong anizeed-flavored liquor.
But this does not prevent them from reciting verses from the Qur’an before the festivities begin.
The fights, for which there are no prizes, last a few minutes. They end after one camel manages to topple the other, or forces them to run away.
Many of the duels end in a tie, with neither camel able to make the other submit.
Down in the wrestling arena with their camels, the owners urge their charges on, trying to push their sometimes uninterested proteges into combat.
On occasion, security guards even have to step in to separate owners who themselves have come to blows.
When the name of his camel is announced, Bilgin leads Kara Elmas into the arena, parading the animal in front of the spectators before lining him up with his adversary.
The two camels throw themselves at each other, each repeatedly brought to their knees as they try to throw each other off balance.
But neither falls, the judges declare a tie and the camels are separated.
Bilgin is ecstatic.
“I am so emotional. He fought very well, beyond my expectations. I am really proud,” he says, stroking the imperturbable camel’s neck.


High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Updated 18 August 2019

High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

  • Reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the ice-farming trade
  • The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores

NIKKO, Japan: In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers,” eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.
His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.
But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.
“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto says at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.
At the time, shaved ice cost just ¥200 ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.
“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.
The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labor intensive.
Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavored syrup.
After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.
“I put the price tag at ¥800 for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at ¥9,000 per case, which is six times more than my predecessor,” he says.
At first, there were days he threw away tons of ice because he could not find clients.
But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.
Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.
It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.
It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.
With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.
The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs — with expensive and labor-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available.
And making ice naturally is a grueling task.
The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.
Thin frozen initial layers are scraped away along with dirt and fallen leaves.
The ice-making begins in earnest in the winter, when water is poured in to freeze solid, but it must be carefully protected. Producers regularly scrape off snow that can slow the freezing process.
“I once spent 16 hours non-stop removing snow,” Yamamoto recalls.
And rain too can ruin the product, causing cracks that mean the whole batch has to be discarded.
“I check the weather forecast 10 times a day,” Yamamoto laughs.
Once the ice is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) thick, which takes at least two weeks, workers begin cutting out rectangular blocks.
Each block, which weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), is glided into an ice room filled with sawdust on a long bamboo slide.
The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores.
In the Yanaka district, more than 1,000 people queue up every day for a taste of kakigori made with natural ice produced by another ice-maker from Nikko.
Owner Koji Morinishi says the naturally made ice has a texture that is different from machine-made products.
“It feels very different when you shave it. It’s harder because it’s frozen over a long period of time,” explains Morinishi.
“It’s easier to shave really thin if the ice is hard. If not hard, it dissolves too quickly.”
Morinishi himself struggled when he first opened the kakigori shop, but has gradually built a cult following for his desserts topped with purees of mango, watermelon, peach or other fruit.
And Yamamoto’s firm has seen demand soar — he now harvests 160 tons a year and knows two new producers who have entered the market.
He says: “This business has become attractive and the ice makers are all busy.”