by Sedat Suna
For Habibe Yüksel, camel wrestling is much more than just a sport – it is her family’s legacy.
Continuing what her grandfather started 70 years ago, Yüksel’s passion for the sport has carved out a unique position as western Turkey’s only woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena.
"Camel wrestling is something that takes courage. People think that courage is only for men," Yüksel tells EPA.
"I wanted to try my luck and it worked,” she says, adding that “it was difficult, of course – not easy.”
PASSION BREEDS SUCCESS
Not only has she made a name for herself as the only woman on Turkey’s Aegean coast officially involved in camel wrestling, she has won several titles with her competitive dromedaries, Efecan and Mega, over the past decade.
Away from the fighting arenas where she has achieved her fame, the 55-year-old works as an accountant, which helps pay the bills and support her family, especially her elderly mother.
In 2009, she bought her two young calves when they were three years old, and decided to take up the sport that her grandfather had been forced to abandon in the 1970s as he could not keep up with the financial demands of breeding and feeding camels for competition.
It costs the Yüksel family between 75,000 and 100,000 lira (approximately $5,300) per year to take care of the camels, funds that come straight out of their pocket since they do not make any money from the festivals.
Today, a fighting camel can go for anywhere between 100,000 and 2 million lira.
But Yüksel feels the costs are more than a fair price to follow their dreams and keep part of their family’s history and their local culture alive.
We have had this enthusiasm and love since we were very young, an indispensable passion.
“You can't give up on it. This is a culture for me that came from my grandfather and grandmother. Somehow we are trying to continue this culture,” she adds.
Like a prized racing colt, the camels are fed and looked after with care throughout the spring and summer as they gear up for the season.
The camels, which are kept indoors in stables for extended periods during the off-season, are given a specific, nutrient-rich diet of barley, vetch, grapes and oats, and are not used for load-bearing or any other kind of labor.
“This job demands dedication. You and your camel need to be in good health,” Yüksel says.
CULTURE OR ABUSE?
The camels used in wrestling events are from the Tulu breed, which are bred specifically for competition.
While camel wrestling’s popularity has mostly developed and grown in Turkey – especially its Western coast – the majority of the camels are imported from Iran and Afghanistan.
The sport features two male camels clashing in bouts that normally last about 10 minutes.
As a nearby female camel is needed to get the males in the mood, the matches are usually held during mating season, from November to March.
While serious injuries or deaths are rare, some owners have been known to slaughter a defeated camel, with the meat being distributed to local villagers. Camel sausage is common in these regions, particularly during the festival season.
Animal rights groups in Turkey have long campaigned against the sport and what they consider the unethical treatment of the camels.
“Organizers say that physical violence is not an injury in camel wrestling, (but) there is psychological violence there,” Haytap, a Turkish animal rights organization, told epa-efe in a statement.
“Animals cannot be made to fight each other. We want camel wrestling to be stopped.”
Local authorities are more tolerant, however, with municipalities putting on the festivals and covering transportation and accommodation costs for the camels and their handlers, while the sport is legally protected as part of Turkey’s social and cultural heritage.
WRESTLING MATCH, BEAUTY CONTEST
This year, Yüksel and her camels left their local territory for the first time to take part in the International Efes Selçuk Camel Wrestling Festival, the largest in Turkey, which sees thousands of people packing the stands to watch around 160 bouts.
“I hope we get good grades from the wrestlers,” she says. “You can't even imagine how excited we are.”
Yüksel is also pinning her hopes for success on the beauty contest, which is one of the festival’s side events.
“Let's see, we'll see if we can rank there. Of course, there will be good camels. I wouldn't say we are the best,” she says, before learning that her own Efecan was awarded the Golden Bell “as the most beautiful” camel.